What use are religious studies?


What use are traditional religious studies in a multicultural, secular age? Aren't they at best relics in today's speed-of-light, ultra-materialistic culture?

Not at all, says Dr. Stephen Fugitt, adjunct religious studies instructor. Fugitt has almost twenty years of religious studies teaching experience, first with several colleges in southwest Missouri, then with Columbia College's Christian County and Marshfield campuses in the late 1990s. He began teaching online in 2004, and now teaches "Religion and Human Experience" online.

Fugitt says interest in this general religion class never wanes, at least partly because religion is a basic human impulse.

"There definitely is a lot of interest in this class and I’m happy to have the opportunity to continue teaching it," says Fugitt. "Students seem to respond positively. In a pluralistic society, a broad class like this is very appealing to a lot of students. Some have come from religious backgrounds; others are just interested from a more secular perspective."

Fugitt often asks students to submit a brief essay on why they have taken the course. Fugitt says the essays span the spectrum but that a consistent theme is that many students are genuinely curious. "Most students come from a particular faith context, and want to know what motivates people religiously. It seems to me they really want to know what the rest of the world is thinking."

Divine curiosity

Fugitt understands this curiosity for the divine very well. He comes from a deeply faith-based context himself, growing up in Oklahoma, where his father was a pastor. He moved to Missouri to earn a bachelor's degree in English from the College of the Ozarks near Branson, then a Master of Divinity from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City. Then came a leap of faith: he enrolled in the University of South Africa, Pretoria, the same university that educated former president and apartheid freedom fighter Nelson Mandela and bishop-activist Desmond Tutu.

Fugitt earned his doctorate in theology through the University of South Africa’s distance program, and visited South Africa twice in the early 2000s. "It's a beautiful country and not just visually; the people are, too. Their spirit is fantastic. South Africa is in a sense like a new country because democracy began for them in the post-apartheid 1990s. I imagine that it might have been a bit like visiting early America."

Since earning his doctorate, Fugitt has plunged headfirst into the archaeology and literature of the Old Testament world. In 2007 Fugitt published "Toward an Understanding of Philistine Burials" in the Journal for Semitics; and in November of 2008 presented "David and the Philistines: Balancing a Loyal Israelite with a Shrewd Politician" at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston.

My friend, the Philistine

Philistines? Weren't they the mortal enemies of the Israelites, synonymous today with one who despises art, beauty, intellectual curiosity and spirituality?

Fugitt can’t dispute the contemporary dictionary definition, but does dispute the historical image and the enemy theory to some degree. Archaeological evidence shows the Iron I Philistine culture to be quite advanced and likely a civilizing influence on surrounding peoples. There is also evidence in the Bible and in burials, he says, that the various peoples of the biblical world were culturally similar. There’s even biblical evidence that David allied himself with Philistines during his accession to the throne. A large amount of burial pottery has been found throughout the coastal area of the Levant, says Fugitt; and, as anyone who has dipped into the Old Testament knows, numerous peoples, kingdoms and empires vied for dominance. Fugitt says Levantine burial practices and pottery are remarkably similar and point to a process of ongoing acculturation, where groups borrowed freely from each other.

As an example, Fugitt points to David's alliance with the Philistine king Achish of Gath. If David was to become king he had to somehow ensure his personal and political survival. The Philistine alliance appears to have been a necessary step in his escaping the threats upon his life by King Saul.

But while in Gath, David advanced his cause by deceiving Achish: his forces plundered neighboring villages to make Achish believe the Philistines' enemies had attacked. Curiously, it appears Achish could not distinguish Israelite from Philistine or other goods, according to the biblical text. This supports the idea that acculturation was common among the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean world, a key point of Fuggit's recent presentation in Boston.

King David, the best known king in the Bible, a wheeler-dealer more in the vein of Richard Nixon than George Washington? Perhaps so, says Fugitt: "David was a very shrewd politician. He formed relationships with friends and foes alike to advance his political future. I hope my recent presentation makes a positive contribution to scholarship, showing David not just as the king we know from First Samuel."

Fugitt has traveled to Israel, too, and says acculturation continues to this day: the aroma of Israeli and Palestinian cuisine were indistinguishable, and his hosts at one accommodation were Palestinian Christians.

In his other life, Fugitt is pastor at Norwood First Baptist Church and adjunct instructor at Missouri State University-West Plains. When does he sleep?

"Being both a pastor and teacher take quite a bit of time! Online teaching is a major part of my commitment; my church is not large, which allows me time to pursue my interest in teaching." And he never loses sight of why he is teaching. “To me, teaching is an opportunity to help students reach their goals. I see it as a small contribution toward helping them make a better life for themselves and their families. Beyond that, I teach because I see religion as a big part of our history as a nation and of human culture in general; it's a big part of what motivates people. Studying religion helps students identify important core values of human culture, and I think it can also give them a sense of who they are."