Researcher of the Month – July 2020, Dr Lee-Shea Salma Scharnick-Udemans

Dr Lee-Shae Salma Scharnick-Udemans is Senior Researcher at the Desmond Tutu Research Centre for Religion and Social Justice at the University of the Western Cape, whom the Leeds Centre for Religion and Public Life have a MoU with. Dr Scharnick-Udeman researches, teaches and supervises in the area of religious diversity, pluralism, religion education, the political economy of religion, new religious movements and the media. She is also the Managing Editor of the Journal of the Study of Religion and the African Journal of Gender and Religion.

Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?

Although this has been published elsewhere, I don’t think I can tell this story any better!

“In 2008 I had just graduated with an undergraduate degree majoring in Religious Studies and Media from the University of Cape Town. With very little experience but riding the coat tails of the ivy league(ish) credentials that an education from the University of Cape Town provides, I was employed as a research coordinator by a television production company. My job was to provide research support for a children’s television program about religion in South Africa. The material I gathered would be used by scriptwriters to create dialogue for the program’s main characters. The stars of the show were two puppets, shocking pink Dudu and florescent green Musa. Every Saturday morning, they fulfilled the national broadcaster’s mandate to provide non- confessional educational religious programming to South African audiences. Astonished at my newly minted status as a gainfully employed religious studies graduate, I immediately informed David Chidester, the professor I most wanted to impress. After listening to me relay the absurdities of television production, he referred to the puppets as scholars of religion, and the whole enterprise of public broadcasting and religion as a project of the political economy of the sacred. Thoroughly disturbed and intrigued by this incisive reading of the new context within which I found myself, I quit my job less than a year later, registered for postgraduate studies, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?

My interests are enlivened by the concept of “wild religion” as conceptualised by my doctoral supervisor and mentor David Chidester.  My research is underlined by the potential and possibilities that religion, materially, conceptually and theoretically might yield, if it is researched and studied within and across time and space. Wild religion is an orientation towards the study of religions as both diverse and plural. As a scholar of religion, working in context which is dominated by Christian theology, wild religion as my research orientation is part of my political commitment to contesting the Christonormative predilections of the field. Wild religion inspires us,  as scholars of religion, to think more expansively and creatively about the field of research as well as the sites thereof.

What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

I was recently awarded the prestigious Thuthuka grant, a funding instrument underwritten by the National Research Foundation in South Africa for which emerging researchers compete. The project is entitled Mediatised Religion in South Africa: Representations and Productions of Diversity and Pluralism. Against the background of the particularities of the political economy of the sacred in South Africa for the next three years, together with a small group of post-graduate students we will, produce an archive and record of mediatised religious diversity and theorise the discourses of religious diversity and religious pluralism that are present within these mediatised representations .

In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?

Dominant narratives of peaceful religious co-existence both within and between religious groups and the state have directed the image of religious diversity in South Africa and obscure the real and rising tensions and conflicts between religious communities. Recently, religion has been at the centre of controversy and is the focus of intense public and political concern. The media act as key sites for encountering religion and religious diversity. On the one hand, media reports have presented evidence that indicate a rise in unorthodox religious practices, inter-religious conflict, and tension between religion and state. On the other hand media, particular public service and social media also appear as spaces where more positive configurations of religious diversity and expressions of religious pluralism are produced and represented. In the space in between, the media also provides more ambiguous, undecided images and discourses of diversity. As a theoretical, empirical, and methodological the  Mediatised Religion project proposes to map the location, production, and presentation of religious diversity through electronic and digital media. Thus, the project attempts to uncover how the location, production, and representation of religious diversity plays a role in representing and producing the contesting and contested character of religion as it challenges the state and society, and pushes the boundaries of, religious pluralism and religious freedom to its limits.