[FOCUS ON PROFESSORS PART 2: Many of the professors at Texas Wesleyan University bring not only their academic credentials to their careers, but also hands-on, real world experience that helps to enrich what they teach their students in the classroom. This article is the second in a series of three that will spotlight three such professors who bring a plethora of job experience to their roles as teachers.]
Although some people would say every religion is different from the other, Dr. Mark Hanshaw, professor of religion has spent a great deal of his career proving that to be false.
“I always had a very strong interest in the field of religion [particularly] the relationship between varied religious traditions,” Hanshaw said.
Hanshaw, who has worked at Texas Wesleyan since 2008, said when he was an undergraduate studying journalism at The University of Tennessee he became interested in religion and went on to minor in it. It was his interest in religion that drove him to enroll in law school.
“While I was in law school, I was exploring religious law and how it has served to shape Western society,” Hanshaw said.
Hanshaw said most people think of law as secular and having nothing to do with religion, however, he pointed out that all secular religious systems in the West grew out of religious foundations.
“This is a topic that has always been of great interest to me,” Hanshaw said.
After finishing his law degree, Hanshaw worked as a lawyer for a couple of years, focusing on international law in Washington, DC. Even then, Hanshaw said he always knew he would eventually return to the academic environment to fully explore his interest in religious law.
Hanshaw went on to earn two master’s degrees, one from the University of Manchester in England and another at Texas Christian University and received a doctorate in comparative religious studies from Southern Methodist University.
“As a part of the doctorate program, I was really exploring relationships between different religious legal systems and that ultimately lead to the publication of my first book,” Hanshaw said. “[The book] is on Islamic religious law”
The book, Muslim and American?: straddling Islamic law and U.S. justice was published in 2010.
Hanshaw said he continued to write and find fascination in the overlapping between various religions. He said there a great many things that bridge the various religions together, even though people usually think of them as being completely separate.
Hanshaw said even religions like Christianity and Islam have connections that most people are not able to recognize. Hanshaw said to him, this shows how connected we all are.
“Pointing out these relationships, helps us all to better understand how strongly interconnected we are even though we all happen to have our own communities of interest,” Hanshaw said.“It’s easy for us to get absorbed into our own communities, but I like to unearth some of those strong interconnections that bridge us together a society.”
In addition to writing about religion, over the past two years, Hanshaw filmed documentaries centering on religion.
“The first one came about because of a study abroad trip back in 2010,” Hanshaw said. “I had a group of students who were traveling to India and I was one of the faculty members leading the group and there was a couple of students and I who had been working on a study about Hindu religious rituals.”
Hanshaw said he and the students realized that it would help to bring back footage, not only for their research, but also so they could share it with the rest of the Texas Wesleyan University student body.
“It just so happened that we did more than just capture the experience of being there in India, we actually were able to build a film around certain key Hindu religious traditions,” Hanshaw said. “The goal was to explain the history of these traditions and help students understand them.”
The first documentary, The Ritual of Life in India, won an award at the Houston International Film Festival in 2011.
Hanshaw said after the initial documentary, he realized it needed to be more than one project. Working with one of his students, he has planned six installments in his series of documentaries about religion.
The second film focused on mystical traditions in Islam. That film also won first place in the Houston International Film Festival’s documentary category this past spring. Hanshaw said it was a great achievement for him and his students.
“We are currently editing the third,” Hanshaw said. “Our ultimate goal is to make the series available to schools all around the nation, once the series is completed.”
Timothy Reece, is a former student of Hanshaw’s who went on the trip and said his own interest in religion made him participate. Reece said he managed the equipment, acquired audio footage and did some voiceover work.
“The most exciting part for me was seeing the completed film and thinking about how the film locations and situations influenced my worldview,” Reece said. “It was rewarding to have been involved with a project that shares knowledge from the study abroad trips that I went on.
Hanshaw said he continues to love the field of comparative religion and enjoys giving students the opportunities to ask questions that may be uncomfortable to ask outside of class.
“Every individual has a connection to a religious system,” Hanshaw said. “All of us whether we recognize it or not, have relationships to religious communities and I invite students in the classroom to speak openly about these things.”
“I think for most students I’ve had at Texas Wesleyan, they really value this,” Hanshaw said.