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Alumni Spotlights

Shawn Arthur

At the base of the world’s largest Buddha at Leshan in Sichuan, China.

Growing up in and around Knoxville, with exposure to Catholicism and Protestantism from different sides of the family, I remember being about 5 or 6 and sitting in the front pew of a small Pentecostal church, getting up and looking in the brown bag placed next to the pulpit, and asking my parents why there was grape juice in the bag and not wine. My inquisitive nature did not stop there, and it drove me to take religion courses at the University of Tennessee for general education credits.

I first took John Hodges’s World Religions course, and I remember disliking the textbook: Huston Smith’s Religions of Man, as it was called then. Yet, the topics contained in the book were fascinating, and I was hooked! I double-majored for a time with Chemistry and Religious Studies, but in the end, I could make much more sense of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and New Age religions than I could of Physical Chemistry. I worked closely with Miriam Levering and Rosalind Hackett, and I learned a great deal from them and others such as Russell McCutcheon, Gilya Schmidt, Mark Hulsether, and Charles Reynolds. I had a sense of belonging in the department, as all of the professors welcomed my questioning and probing various issues. I thank them all for their time, patience, insights, and guidance.

After graduating in 1998, I took a six-month working sabbatical in England, thanks to a university-sponsored visa. I returned to Knoxville the next year, and worked with Miriam Levering over the summer to translate parts of the proto-Daoist text, the Daodejing, or the Way and Its Virtues. She began teaching me Classical Chinese as a result, and I could not get enough! I was very excited to get back into the academic world. That fall, I was lucky enough to be able to join the first cohort of Master’s degree students in the department, where I was able to explore Asian religions in much more depth, and I learned a great deal about method and theory in the study of religion. I relished delving into these topics and examining how we go about studying religion and ways that we should think about the impact of our work in terms of improving awareness, understanding, and cultural competence. I eventually received my M.A. in Religion in 2001, along with some great introductory teaching experiences.

Thanks to my work with the Religious Studies faculty at UTK, I received a prestigious scholarship to attend Boston University and to work with my dream Ph.D. mentor, Professor Livia Kohn, a specialist in Daoism. Dr. Kohn, along with David Eckel and John Berthrong at Boston University and Michael Puett at Harvard, among other faculty, guided my work on Chinese culture, society, and religions. They exposed me to even more amazing materials and ways of thinking. During this time I learned Classical Chinese, translated a range of early Chinese texts, lived in China for six months doing research, and graduated in 2006 with my Ph.D.  My dissertation focused on 3rd-5th century Daoist dietary practices, and it became the basis for my first book, Early Daoist Dietary Practices: Examining Ways to Health and Longevity, with Lexington Books (2015).

Hiking up to Ge Hong’s Temple in Hangzhou, China. Ge Hong was a famous 4th century alchemist.

I assumed my first full-time position as Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina in 2006.  Here I was able to give vent to my inquisitive nature and explore a wide range of interests through research, writing, and teaching various courses on Chinese religions, Chinese medicine, method and theory in the study of religions, Contemporary Paganism, and the intersections of religions, cultures, and the body.  A colleague and I took three different groups of students to China as part of summer courses and helped them to experience and understand the magnificence of China and its people, cultures, and religions. These were life-changing experiences for all of us.  Eventually, I achieved tenure at ASU and continued to publish on issues in Daoism and Contemporary Paganism.

In 2014 I accepted a new position as Assistant Professor of Chinese Religions at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC.  I am also affiliated faculty of Asian Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. At this institution, I have been able to focus my energies more on Chinese religions, while also expanding my interests in pedagogy, contemplative studies, and method and theory in the study of religions.  I teach students how to explore religions with, what I call, the Anthropological Adage: critical and analytical thinking, and self-reflexivity.  Not only do we focus on asking questions, to elicit further details and insights, but we also learn to ask the right kinds of questions to analyze issues such as women in religion, power dynamics, and orientalist and colonialist views of East Asia as exotic and mysterious. In the process, we find ways to better understand ourselves by ‘making the foreign familiar and the familiar foreign.’

I am excited about my current research on religions in contemporary China, especially from the perspective of laypeople.  It is refreshing to work with living people in China who go to Daoist, Buddhist, and folk temples, who light incense and prostrate themselves as a form of respect for the divine and their ancestors. With this project, I have found new areas of interest and insight: such as how important smell and touch are for people doing ‘religious’ practices across China.  I really enjoyed seeing some of my former professors and family – and all of the great students – at the end of January when I came to UTK to give a public presentation about my research on smell in Chinese religions.

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