Religious Studies Digital Humanities projects tackle theme of visual and material religion

Annabelle Baker, Kaitlin Theall, Reilly Linskey, and SJ McDonald developed websites in Professor Pamela Winfield's Digital Humanities Senior Seminar

The Department of Religious Studies is proud to present four outstanding website designs that were completed during this year’s Digital Humanities Senior Seminar in Religious Studies, taught by Professor Pamela Winfield. The theme for the seminar was Visual and Material Religion, informed by key readings such as Sally Promey’s important edited volume “Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice” (Yale University Press, 2014).

Engaging in innovative research in visual analysis and religion, Annabelle Baker focused on an Indian film adaptation of the Hindu epic The Ramayana, and Kaitlin Theall analyzed press images of Sufi Muslims in historic and contemporary Morocco. Engaging in original work at the intersection of religion and material culture, Reilly Linskey looked at Black First Baptist cemetery grave markers here in Elon, and Sarah “SJ” McDonald considered sacred spaces and objects in primarily Christian East African refugee communities.

The students’ theoretical and methodological approaches were equally varied, including film theory, Orientalism, critical race theory and precarity studies, to name but a few. In developing these projects for this seminar, students built on undergraduate research projects mentored by Elon faculty including Assistant Professor Ariela Marcus-Sells, Professor Brian Pennington, and Associate Professor Mussa Idris.

The scope and depth of these Digital Humanities projects and formal research papers significantly contribute to our understanding of lived religion as it is practiced on the ground. They also underscore how vibrant religious communities across the globe continually construct and reconstruct identity not just through doctrine and belief, but also through visible and material means.


“Filmic Incarnations of Sita: An Analysis of the Implications of Lajja (Santoshi, 2001)”

Annabelle Baker

Major: Religious Studies

Minor: Communications


Abstract: Throughout the history of Indian film, there has always been an inclination towards depicting and referencing epic themes, plotlines and characters from the Rāmāyana. Even when telling new stories, the character of Rama’s wife Sita continues to be instrumental in portraying stories about the expectations, limitations, and emotional experiences of Indian womanhood. Sita’s status in Indian folklore has much surpassed the definition of “Rama’s wife.” She is a role model, a martyr, a warrior, and a map onto which stories and aspirations of women can and have been projected for hundreds of years. This paper will explore themes of Indian womanhood and Hindu patriarchy told through Sita-adjacent characters in the film Lajja (Santoshi, 2001). It will accomplish this by taking a closer look at the stories of the four women portrayed in the film: Vaidehi, Maithili, Janaki, and Ramdulaari (all epithets for Sita), and comparing them to select literary and vernacular traditions surrounding Sita. Such an analysis is important because it will shed light on the differences between the contemporary feminist themes applied to Sita episodes in Lajja, and other Sitas that have existed as exemplary figures of dutiful womanhood throughout hundreds of years of narrative Rāmāyana traditions.


“Sufism in the Moroccan Media: From French Colonization to the Present”

Kaitlin Theall

Majors: Religious Studies, Political Science

Minor: Middle Eastern Studies


Abstract: To highlight the effects of the Moroccan media’s politically-motivated messaging, this paper will examine visual representations in French pre-colonial media immediately before the French protectorate began. It will also examine the portrayal of Sufis in Moroccan state-sponsored media imagery after 2003. It will demonstrate that the French portrayal shows the Sufi resistance as savage and violent, and operates off of the repeated use of French colonial orientalist symbols, like Sufi dress from the time period, weapons, and a severed head. Then, it will demonstrate that in the era of Mohammed VI’s counter-extremism projects, Sufism is closely associated with traditional Moroccan culture through repeated imagery of distinctly Moroccan clothing like the djellaba (robe) and fez (cap), images of prayer, song and dance, and of King Mohammed VI himself. The shift in these depictions ultimately shows the different ways that Sufism in the Moroccan context has been co-opted by two different states, for two starkly different reasons.


“Religious Materiality in Cemeteries: Analyzing Vernacular Religion and Material Culture within the Elon First Baptist Church Cemetery”

Reilly Linskey

Major: Religious Studies, History

Minor: Psychology


Abstract: The Elon First Baptist Church is a majority Black congregation localized around a majority Black residential neighborhood in Elon, North Carolina. The church was founded by the formerly enslaved reverend John McMullen in 1922 and was the first Black Baptist church built in the area. The church and its surrounding community have their unique history and individual stories, but the they can also be viewed as a microcosm showing the history of race relations within the United States. Using the Elon First Baptist Church cemetery as a case study, this paper will explore the religious rituals and practices of Black Americans that emerge out of multiple systems of oppression. The theoretical frameworks which scaffold my analysis of grave markers are critical race theory in conjunction with theories regarding vernacular religion and material religion. The application of these theories to my analysis of grave markers in the Elon First Baptist Church Cemetery expose common themes uniquely present in southern African American cemeteries, such as the homemade nature and personalization of graves (a cultural practice with its roots in the economic disenfranchisement of Black communities). This analysis provides insight into the significance of grave markers as religious objects in the Black community which not only preserve the memory of the deceased through memorialization, but also provide continued links between the living and the dead.


“The Church is a Piece of Home: Religious Experiences of Refugees and Their Relationship to Materiality”

Sarah “SJ” McDonald

Majors: Religious Studies, International & Global Studies (Africa concentration)

Minors: Leadership, Peace & Conflict Studies


Abstract: This research seeks to understand how refugees find emplacement through the context of materiality and, more specifically, material religion. It argues that materiality has an active role in shaping refugees’ lives, as both the absence and presence of objects creates connection to the memory and lived reality of home as experienced by resettled refugees. In order to hold onto home, refugees must continually recall and reinvent their conception of what home was. For refugees, the concept of home is a multi-sensory experience in which the self is located. Refugees’ religious lives are constructed through the medium of the body and religious experience constitutes the sensory experience of the body. Refugees’ sense of religious self and place is situated in the material: in reminders of what they left behind, what they took, and what they have since acquired. This paper seeks to understand refugee materiality in the context of encampment and resettlement in order to recognize the important and detrimental ways migration affects a person’s life. It will explore how imbuing material objects with meaning can mimic the larger meaning-making process of ‘religion’ itself and create a religious experience within the vernacular. Furthermore, this paper will also emphasize the importance of refugee community building, especially with regards to maintaining culture and community in the resettlement context.