Pinn and CERCL Writing Collective collaborate on new book, ‘Embodiment and Black Religion’

By their very nature, academics want to stake out their own territory, to both conceive of and claim some radical new idea. But for the last four years, Rice’s Anthony Pinn, the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and a professor of religion, has had a very different mandate for his graduate students: collaborate, even if it means no longer receiving full credit. The result is a new book, “Embodiment and Black Religion: Rethinking the Body in African-American Religious Experience,” published by Equinox in 2017 under a group authorship, the CERCL Writing Collective.

“Embodiment and Black Religion: Rethinking the Body in African-American Religious Experience,” published by Equinox in 2017 under a group authorship, Rice's CERCL Writing Collective.

“Embodiment and Black Religion: Rethinking the Body in African-American Religious Experience,” published by Equinox in 2017 under a group authorship, Rice’s CERCL Writing Collective.

Pinn is the founding director of Rice’s Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning (CERCL), which promotes the application of critical thinking skills, the use of innovative communication techniques and the engagement of a wide-ranging set of perspectives to create new scholarly works and new generations of leaders. The Writing Collective’s first book, “Breaking Bread, Breaking Beats,” examined the intersection of hip-hop and religion and what religious organizations should know about hip-hop culture.

Books written by multiple authors aren’t new; however, the approach taken by the CERCL Writing Collective is novel. “There are co-authored volumes, but typically you still have a sense of ownership over the piece and the voices are still somewhat distinct,” Pinn said. “My hope is that with our process, that kind of distinctiveness is lost, because we don’t maintain ownership over this initial idea. It gets massaged and reworked as part of a group effort. And I hope as a result the ideas are richer and more complex.”

Eight graduate students rotated in and out over the four-year writing and editing process, including Jessica Davenport, Justine Bakker, Cleve Tinsley IV, Biko Mandela Gray, David Kline, Jason Jeffries, Sharde’ Chapman and Mark DeYoung. The students brought their own perspectives and backgrounds to the project, from social sciences to philosophy to theology. The result? A much more multifaceted approach to a topic than scholarly works characteristically display.

“You can’t build a house with just a hammer, so you can’t really explore and understand the nature and meaning of religion just using one academic tool,” Pinn said.

The idea behind this second book from the CERCL Writing Collective was borne out of two years spent discussing issues of religion and embodiment with faculty and graduate students at the University of Kent in England. A faculty development grant from Rice allowed Pinn and his graduate students to travel to the U.K. in 2013 for in-person discourses, and it wasn’t long before he knew that these discussions merited something more permanent.

“We wanted those conversations to extend beyond what was taking place in that conference room,” Pinn said. “We told Rice we’d have some sort of end product, and it only made sense for us to come up with a way of showing what these conversations have entailed. My students began outlining this book proposal, and the work took off from there.”

Anthony Pinn, the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and a professor of religion, is also the founding director of CERCL.

Anthony Pinn, the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and a professor of religion, is also the founding director of CERCL.

The book builds on larger discourse about African-American religion and what it means to be embodied — that is, what it means to be a human being within an earthly, flesh-bound vessel — two topics that benefit from a multidisciplinary approach, given their intrinsically multidisciplinary natures. African-American religion represents an intersection of history, culture, ethnicity and theology; embodiment marries matters of purely scientific pursuits, such as biology and chemistry, with more metaphysical concerns, like ontology, the study of the nature of being.

“All of the chapters of this book could have been theologically driven, and what we’d get is a flat understanding of how bodies figure into religious thinking and doing,” Pinn said. “But this interdisciplinary work gives you different vantage points simultaneously, so you get to look at this issue from different angles in light of different questions and concerns.”

Among those concerns, Pinn said, “is that something about religion has to do with how human bodies occupy time and space, and what we think about that occupation of time and space.” Everything from faith-based dietary laws to the intricate rituals surrounding death, Pinn said, “is directly related to what it means for us to be bodied creatures.”

Take, for instance, the very foundations of the black church in America. “The black church began in part as a response to a deep disregard and violence toward black bodies,” Pinn said. “People of African descent were addressed violently through this systematic disregard because they had a particular look — their bodies mattered. Their bodies became a way of distinguishing them from populations that were understood to be of deep significance and importance.”

Embodiment, especially in this sense, continues to be of great concern today, Pinn said. “As Black Lives Matter has pointed out to us, the degree to which black bodies are still demonized in the United States is a matter of deep significance,” he said. “Trayvon Martin is dead because he lived in a black body. Michael Brown is dead because he lived in a black body.”

Black religion has been an effort to rescue these bodies, to rethink their importance and significance, Pinn and his graduate students argue in the book. “One of the theological ways in which this happens is through the concept of Imago Dei — that we are made in the image of God,” Pinn said. “And so to the degree we are made in the image of God, these bodies must have significance, must have importance, must have value. Black churches have taken that theological concept and they’ve run with it.”

Since the book’s publication, a few of his students have graduated, while others have moved on to different projects. Pinn, meanwhile, is contemplating a third book through the CERCL Writing Collective. “There’s a lot more that needs to be said concerning the intersection of religion and politics at this particular historical moment,” Pinn said, “but I need to catch my breath.”

For the time being, Pinn is pleased with the book’s success in providing information that he hopes will spark interesting questions and critical thinking, as well as its success in getting a disparate group of graduate students to collaborate in ways that will impact their work for years to come. “Part of preparing students for the larger academy involves helping them become familiar with multitasking and helping them develop the ability to move between responsibilities,” Pinn said.

“It was really difficult in part because graduate students are trying to claim territory; they’re trying to distinguish themselves, to come up with something that is theirs. And so to ask them to step away from that, present an idea and be okay with that idea being changed and massaged — that’s difficult.”

That said, the end product is hard to argue with. “In a very pragmatic way, these are now graduate students who have on their CVs a book,” Pinn said. “That’s not such a bad thing.”

For more information on “Embodiment and Black Religion: Rethinking the Body in African-American Religious Experience,” visit www.embodyingreligion.org.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.