As a field, religious studies is supremely interdisciplinary, ranging widely across millennia and fields of inquiry, posing broad questions and inviting discussion — particularly about things students often take for granted.
That was part of the attraction for Daniel Vaca, assistant professor of religious studies. “I was the first person in my family to attend college,” he said. “When I showed up at William and Mary, I didn't really know what to seek out. My plan was to become a lawyer, so I was pre-law.” But a faculty member who welcomed and advised students from Vaca’s home area in Virginia asked him whether he was excited by his studies. Vaca admitted that he really wasn’t; the faculty member suggested that he take an introductory course in religion.
“That course made me think about things I had taken for granted and ask questions I hadn’t asked about American culture and society,” Vaca said. “I realized, for instance, how people use religion all the time to sanctify policies and perspectives in the same way as people use the Constitution. I kept feeding that addiction.” That led him to theology and religious studies at the University of Cambridge and to graduate work at Columbia University (M.A., 2008, M.Phil, 2010, Ph.D., 2012).
Much of Vaca’s current research is about the relationship between religion and capitalism — how businesses shape the way religious life looks and how religious life shapes the way capitalism works in America. That is a historical force with a long arc encompassing significant changes.
“Different forms of capitalism have shaped the way American religion looks and operates,” Vaca said. “In the 19th century, churches stopped raising money by essentially renting out their pews and adopted voluntary models of church attendance and giving. Once that happened, churches had to raise money systematically from the congregation. New financial instruments appeared to help make that possible, including endowments. Mega-churches appear throughout the United States, financed by modern methods.” Vaca’s next project will explore how economic changes have shaped forms of religious community and attitudes toward inequality.
His dissertation at Columbia, now worked into a book manuscript, focused on the American evangelical book industry — religion, media, and capitalism. Bible publishing and tract ministries were important evangelical activities in the 19th century, Vaca said, but little has been written about the evangelical book business in the 20th and 21st centuries. “That includes some of the best-selling books of all time,” Vaca said. “Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life has sold more than 30 million copies. How did that become possible?”
Vaca’s book, Book People: Commercial Media and Spirit of Evangelicalism, explores that question. Part of the answer lies in the relationship between religion and business. For-profit corporations now produce and distribute evangelical materials.
“Two of the biggest Christian publishing companies — Zondervan and Thomas Nelson — are owned by News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp,” Vaca said. “You could ask what News Corp might want with Christian publishing. It’s not just about how the book business has emerged to serve the evangelical movement, but also about how religious businesses have helped generate the evangelical market in the first place. Evangelicalism continues to be one of the most vibrant forms of Christianity in America partly because the media that it generated continues to churn.”
Vaca is not entirely brand-new to Brown. He was a visiting assistant professor during the 2013-14 academic year and had time to examine for himself Brown’s reputation for the liberal arts — “a small Ivy League school that takes teaching seriously, with a curriculum that seemed interesting, even a bit weird.”
His classes — “Money, Media, and Religion,” and “Spiritual But Not Religious: American Spirituality Past and Present” last spring — attracted a good cross-section of students from the liberal arts and sciences. “In other schools, students sometimes take religious studies to satisfy a cultural distribution requirement. Here at Brown, they don’t have that. They take classes because they want to take them.”
That cross-section of students shares a common starting point. Vaca often begins by asking his students to define religion. Mathematicians, engineers, creative writers, economists, historians, biologists, anthropologists — religious studies engages them all.
“People define religion in all kinds of ways, but it’s impossible to define concretely,” Vaca said. “Even if students are turned off by the idea of religion, that’s an opportunity for them to explore how they and others understand the world and their place in it.”