Professor brings religion to 21st century
Religious studies professor Anthea Butler engages in religious debates on Twitter
February 18, 2013, 11:41 pm·
Sophia Lee | DP
When asked whether she had an active social media presence, professor of religious studies Anthea Butler responded, “Duh.”
Although she finds Facebook “completely slow and boring,” she loves Twitter.
“I think about Twitter as being … a way to engage the public, especially for public understanding of religion because I think a lot of times you don’t hear enough about religion in the media and you hear about it in all the wrong ways,” Butler said. “I think [Twitter] is the best source to get fresh news.”
Butler not only tweets daily but also has written for media outlets such as Religion Dispatches, The Grio and CNN Belief.
Although Butler said that social media outlets such as Twitter are good, they can also be “dangerous platforms.”
“I had an incident back in September with this ‘Innocence of Muslims’ movie,” she said. “[A] Twitchy mob picked it up, and I basically got attacked for three days for what I said … They were threatening me, calling my colleagues, and that’s the time when social media is really hard to deal with because you can’t predict that a conservative group like [a] Twitchy mob is going to come after you.”
She explained that she made her comment due to her frustration that people did not understand Islam and the frequent “vilification of Muslims.”
“I realized that there’s academic freedom, however, and what I like about Penn is nobody tried to tell me ‘you know you did a bad thing,’” she added. “People were on my side because the University believes in academic freedom.”
Butler also spends some of her time blogging. “Blogs allow you to spin forth a thought in 700 to 1,000 words,” she said. “It gives me a way to talk about the things that I might not necessarily write about academically but that I do want to comment on or explore.”
Butler — a 2001 Vanderbilt graduate — began teaching as a religious studies professor at Penn in 2009. Some of the courses she teaches include “Women in Religion,” “African-American Religions” and “Religious Right in America.” She is also teaching a class entitled “Martin and Malcolm in America” — focusing on the “religious thought and rhetoric” of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
“Students don’t have a really good idea about either of these men because there’s a lot of mythology about them,” Butler said.
Butler, born and raised in Texas, studied theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. After working for various firms as a pension plan administrator, Butler was inspired to get her doctorate in religion by a professor from Switzerland.
“I had been really involved in my church at the time so I thought I wanted to be a Christian counselor … I realized because I’m too blunt, that wasn’t going to work,” Butler said.
“I took this class and [the professor] is the one who suggested I should do my Ph.D.… in the Ph.D. tradition you call it your ‘doctor father’, and Walter Hollenweger was that for me.”
Students say that Butler is an extremely passionate teacher who is very knowledgeable about the subjects she teaches.
“She was really open and honest in class, and she’s really resourceful in terms of the information she gave,” College senior Chevon Boone said. “I’d say she’s definitely unconventional because she’s open to different ideas and asked our preferences to make sure she fits our learning style.”
Students also noted her attraction to media.
“Her teaching style is very dynamic, and she definitely draws from a lot of media rather than just using a book or text,” College senior Kareli Lizarraga said. “She’s definitely one of the most engaging professors I’ve ever had at Penn.”
When Butler isn’t busy jetting off to New York to appear on the Melissa Harris Perry Show or waking up at 6:15 a.m. to comment on the resignation of the pope for National Public Radio, she likes to travel, visit the opera and even enjoys the “artisan craft of drinks.”
“The whole history of prohibition is some of the stuff I think about teaching so I’m really interested in a really well-made cocktail,” Butler added.