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Student Spotlight

Frank Gawryla

Frank GawrylaI came to UT with aspirations of becoming a psychology major. In order to fill up my hours, I took religious studies courses out of interest. Psychology didn't really fit me, in the end, but I continued to excel at religious studies. Well, at least I enjoyed them.  Not a semester went by that I didn't learn about some new aspect of faith or build upon my worldview of global religions and practices. Junior year finally rolled around, and I was left standing in the cold with an undecided major peering down at me. And it was in that year that I was lucky enough to be taking one of Dr. Hackett's classes. She looked at my history of courses, and asked me directly if I had ever thought about being religious studies major. And just like that, I knew what I wanted to do. It all made sense to me; do what makes you happy, and religious studies makes me happy. Besides, how could I turn down a personal invitation from the department head herself?

It really does seem to have been the perfect choice for me. Though I must admit, I do not believe I came in to religious studies for the same reasons other majors have. I came looking for monsters. Well, stories about monsters, to be exact. My whole life, I have had a fascination with the grotesque and the mythical.  Dragons as a child, Norse and Greek myth as a teenager; I even briefly considered being a Classics major despite not knowing any Latin! But what I came to realize was that I love stories, and am utterly fascinated by the power they hold over people. Our whole lives are stories, with our own monsters and heroes. Stories are how we understand the world, the foundations of the essential truths that we build society on.

And it feels like there is almost a kind of symbiosis of interests for me in religious studies. Academics enriches entertainment, and entertainment leads me ever deeper into academics. Terms that I had been familiar with my whole life gained new meaning, and I saw characters from a light I had never even considered. How many game or aficionados know about shamans, but how few amongst them could describe the difference between an angaqok and a Siberian spiritualist? The Greek and Norse mythos are household flights of fancy, but when one can look at local custom and see more than 'mere paganism', but a religion as deep and intricate as any Abrahamic faith, one's life becomes enriched. As I wander through fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, the same familiar names appear again and again, reminding me that our myths have not left us so much as they have changed to always follow us.

Furthermore, as a blood-and-sun resurrection cultist, or Christian, as we have insisted on calling ourselves these last 2000 years, I feel a duty to understand other world religions, and thus grasp my own faith more firmly.  What do we have in common? What is the source of corruption in a religion? And what is religion exactly? And my understanding has grown. Religion is more than stating 'I believe or don't believe in-'; it is the intersection of tradition, ritual, and social conduct that weaves itself through a society as surely as politics, the military, or the economy. All four state the ideals of a society; how aggressive it is, what it thinks of materialism, what it thinks of bureaucracy, what it thinks of its neighbors, etc.  But religion speaks of those ideals that are immortal to people; hope, condemnation, redemption, life, death.  And so at the intersection of my fascination with stories and this contemplation of the mysteries divine is my love for religious studies, of finding the truth of the immortal and the spiritual through looking at the stories we construct, at the tropes and the characters and acts that we all see in the world around us.

This is, of course, the higher purpose that I tell myself about as I shovel another swarm of books about flesh-eating zombies into my arms. It has, still is, and will always be about the pursuit of monsters, the strange, and the grotesque in the end. Right now, I'm moving my way through yet another sociological treatise on monsters, titled… well, On Monsters. By a Mr. Stephen T. Asma, I find it to be everything I want in an academic study of the nature of monsters without being dry, disinterested, or outdated. I really am quite surprised at the broad range of subjects so far, or at least their inclusion in the study. Mention is made of deformities, with images courtesy of the Muir Museum of Medicine in Philadelphia (a dream-vacation spot for me). I was also infinitely pleased about the discussion of the connection between fossils and Greek mythology. Depictions of a Cyclops based off of a wooly mammoth's skull are one of the truest ways to my heart.

However, as much as I may wish it to be true, monsters do not a religious studies career make. As I have stated before, one of my goals in becoming a religious studies major is to better grasp my own religion, and as such I have picked up the new hot-topic of theology, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat. (Well, it was new less than a year ago, anyway.) I think Mr. Douthat has some points to make about his own visions of Protestant Christianity, and I admire the boldness in his statement that any religion should be neither too conservative nor too liberal. However, I find Mr. Douthat's insistence that religious dissent is the core of spiritual and social dissolution in the United States assigns too much importance to the centrality of religion in society.

But, of course, there are still books on ghosties and ghoulies to read in my spare time. Max Brooks World War Z, part of the new canon for zombies, may now rest easy. While the collection of 'first-hand' accounts were entertaining, it was ultimately what I feared; more focus on human drama and less on undead cannibals. Though to be fair, there has never been much to say about zombies by themselves, though maybe that's why they're my latest kick. I'm convinced that behind the post-apocalypse and gory empowerment fantasies they've been pigeon-holed into, there's still a legitimately monstrous archetype just waiting to be discovered. But, that insight will have to wait for another day; it's onwards and upwards for me.

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