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Amid the many resources I use to help students theorize about religion – readings, film clips, visuals, music, and group exercises – one of my most reliable is decidedly low-tech. It is a large envelope full of children's building blocks.

On the first day of class, I propose course mottos. One is that taking a college class is not like filling in blanks on a paint-by-number kit, but like participating in a workshop for critical thought. When it is time to broach our first theoretical questions – how best to select cases for our workshop and what methods we need for analyzing them – I take out my envelope and dump my blocks onto the table. Some are unpainted wooden blocks in rectangles and squares, both large and small. Others are alphabet blocks in three colors. There are legos of various colors and shapes. Finally there are three special pieces to which we will return.

This set of blocks represents the cases proposed for analysis in our syllabus; it dramatizes the need to be self-conscious about choosing categories for analysis. To begin, I stack a random set of blocks and comment that if we used a paint-by-number approach, students could memorize how I stacked them and regurgitate the “correct” order on exams. I try to choreograph my presentation so that my tower falls over as I say this.

I note then that each block has several attributes such as shape, size, and color. How should we sort them to build something interesting? Students may suggest dividing the plastic and wooden pieces, and I may respond, “Good, let's say that the plastic ones are men and the wooden ones are women.” Sorting this way makes differences within each “sex” obvious, while highlighting questions about what women have in common across religious divides. Students may note a distinction between squares and rectangles – and I may suggest that squares (both male and female) represent Biblical traditions while rectangles represent other traditions. Large blocks represent dominant groups or elites (priests, monks, and so forth) while small ones signify minorities or ordinary people. My set has “racial” differences (colored versus presumptively “normal” blocks) and differences in “literacy” (blocks with and without letters).

Reshuffling the blocks dramatizes the multiple ways we can pursue analysis of the same data. It suggests a need to self-consciously pick tools such as gender analysis, a focus on hegemony, on oral versus literate cultures, or on contrasts between “East” and “West”. (I mention these simply as examples, not to defend my own preferred set.) Regardless of which analysis we choose, other categories cut across the one in the foreground. This relates to another motto: “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Students need to build whole toolboxes and learn how to pick appropriate tools for given tasks. Specifically, I ask them to select cases from a larger set introduced by my syllabus, then select theoretical categories (also from a larger set) to compare and analyze their cases. They cannot simply follow a preset blueprint, but must create their own projects.

Unsurprisingly, this makes some students nervous – especially those who prefer cut-and-dried answers to write in their notes. It also raises the question of whether some analyses are better than others. I promote a range of approaches and a kind of relativity, in the sense that we must choose tools in ways that relate to varying goals and contexts. (We can build many useful things with the same blocks, depending on what we find useful.) However, there are better and worse answers to many key questions. I can hold up a yellow block and ask whether it is red, and I can show how some methods of stacking blocks lead to towers that fall down. Thus I offer students a proven set of starter tools, while leaving other modes of analysis for another day. After all, blocks have more attributes than we have yet mentioned – we could also sort by smell, market value, presence of dog saliva, radioactivity, whether they were crafted by aliens and have healing powers, and so on indefinitely. This list includes one item, market value, which some theorists consider crucial. But who would argue that these all are equally promising modes of analysis? Some are pointless or impossible to measure. Likewise, in the study of religion, exploring linkages between collective ritual and political power is a proven strategy, while charting religious difference based on hair color would probably be a dead end street.

A key theoretical problem is how to define what counts as religious – and by extension which cases are paradigmatic and which we should ignore. I point to my carved lion (purchased in Africa) and ask if it belongs with the set. It is made of wood, with a similar size and color as several blocks. However, it is lion-shaped – and, by extension, we might ask how African religions match students' preconceived definitions of religion. I ask related questions about a sugar cube – which I identify as a televangelist, and which often gets me a laugh when I “investigate” it by chomping on it. These examples clarify family resemblance models for defining religion, while foreshadowing later critiques of how scholars of religion treat Native American and mass-mediated forms.

Finally I come to a block that appears to be a large green lego. In fact it is made of play dough and has no fixed shape. It starts out signifying elite Baptist men, yet I can easily show how it is undergoing schisms or morphing into a hot dog. It dramatizes how religious traditions are dynamic, changing, and constituted through dialogues internal to the communities that carry them from generation to generation. I stress that this dynamism is the beating heart of religion as it actually exists, and that if I gave students solely static lists to memorize they would not learn to understand this heartbeat.

All this is rather abstract for the first week. Some students grasp my arguments about blocks without yet being able to apply them to religious cases. Nevertheless the strategy serves me well as a first step to draw students into theoretical conversation and as a touchstone to which I can return.