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Tweeting on High

Religion prof Prothero tries to explain a religion in 140 characters

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CAS Religion Professor Stephen Prothero is offering a quick overview of eight major world religions on his Twitter feed, @sprothero.

BU prof @sprothero breaks down the god squads: How 2 live? whose rules? & what’s next? Ahh!? Or …
07:35 a.m. June 23 from web

Providing a synopsis of each of eight major world religions in Twitter-speak (with a 140-character limit) takes creative condensation and inventive linguistics. For example, on Stephen Prothero’s feed, an “Ahh!” at the end of a tweet indicates that a religious philosophy includes a final payoff, such as heaven. It’s there for Christianity and Islam; his take on Hinduism ends with “Om Apu Ahh!” in a reference to Americans’ best-known Hindu, Apu from The Simpsons. But his Judaism tweet concludes with “2010 in 97500!” (Translation: the Passover pledge, “Next year in Jerusalem!”)

He is especially proud of his version of the eightfold path in Buddhism: “Path=let go(d).”

“That was my favorite move,” says Prothero, a professor and chair of the religion department in the College of Arts & Sciences. “Let go(d) is only 10 characters, but it gave the idea of letting go of god and the idea of letting god do things, because there is a notion of god with some Buddhists. Religions can be very paradoxical.”

Another favorite? His shorthand on atheism: “There is no uknowwho but Freud & Marx is his prophet,” crafted after discarding words like “delusional” and “oppressive” as too long.

Prothero’s tweets on eight major world religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, and Yoruba — plus atheism, attracted 449 followers in just 11 days. He’s new to Twitter, but experienced in navigating through popular culture; his 2007 book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t landed him appearances on The Daily Show and Oprah and was named one of the best books of the year by Publisher’s Weekly and the Washington Post. In it, Prothero argues that while American society is deeply religious, there’s a pervasive lack of knowledge about the principles of even the country’s most common religions. And in a culture so deeply shaped by Scripture, he says, that’s a problem.

“Part of what I’m trying to do is to get people to understand that religion matters, that it’s a huge political and social force. We’re seeing that play out now in Iran,” he says. “You can open the newspaper and see how important religion is.”

While the tweets are a lighthearted effort to share basic information, they also contribute to Prothero’s ongoing effort to break down barriers between academia and “the so-called real world.”

“I really don’t see the point of what we’re doing if we’re just talking to one another,” he says, “so I’m interested in bringing the conversation in academia into the public square.”

It didn’t take long for conversation about “Religion 140,” Prothero’s nickname for this project, to begin: followers have questioned his decision to tweet about Christianity as a whole instead of about individual denominations, his classification of “repair the world” as a Jewish principle, and his equating the Buddha with dried feces. The last, he explains on his feed, is a “famous Zen saying warning against clinging to his words or authority. In other words, make your own path.

Prothero tackles questions and challenges as a conscientious Twitterer: if he thinks the dialogue will interest other readers, he responds publicly; if not, he replies by private message.

Does the wave of queries and followers mean that @sprothero is building religious literacy around the globe? Not exactly, Prothero says. After all, there’s much more to discover about Taoism than “Confucius sucks. Ritual=empty. True Way=wu-wei, natural as flowing water. Be free, be qi, live 4 now 4 ever. Ahh!” But he hopes his tweets will pique curiosity and inspire a search for more.

The core principles of each tweet are distilled from Prothero’s research for his upcoming book, The Great Religions, due out next year. At first, he says, the information flow was strictly one way — book to Twitter. Then things shifted.

“I had a friend who said, ‘I dare you to do the eight full paths of Buddhism in 140 characters,’” he says. “My description made it into the book.”

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.

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2 Comments

2 Comments on Tweeting on High

  • Phyl on 06.23.2009 at 5:26 pm

    Prothero and Twitter

    I found Prothero’s tweets by accident, right at the beginning, and leapt upon them with glee. I have two Religious Studies degrees, and was eager to see how he’d manage the “religion in 140 characters” project. It was a lot of fun to see those tweets each day. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

  • Anonymous on 06.25.2009 at 10:07 am

    I think this is a great idea. But what would probably add benefit to the exercise is including a link to websites or a website that presents balanced information about each religion, from the perspective of believers.

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