M. Cooper Harriss

Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies

Adjunct Professor in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology


Sycamore Hall, Rm. 207


Ph.D., University of Chicago, 2011

M.A.R., Yale Divinity School, 2003

A.M., University of Chicago, 1998

B.A., Washington and Lee University, 1997

Research Interests

Professional Biography

My research and teaching dwell critically upon historical texts (including literature, vernacular music, preaching, and performance) to discern ways in which religious thought, belief, and practice both contribute to and are generated by the formation of diverse American cultures and identities. I am particularly interested in the religious and theological dimensions of the concept of race, tracing various critical religious terms of its development and cultural expression in American, African-American, and transnational contexts.

Two book projects occupy my present energies. The first (Things Which Are Not Seen: Race, Religion, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology) marshals archival research, close reading, and studies in religion, literature, and secularism, aiming broadly at two objectives: 1) It argues that diverse iterations of religious study afford a transformative lens for understanding the work of a prominent, yet problematic, African-American author and thinker. 2) It stakes the larger and more ambitious claim that Ellison’s literary conception of race articulates an ‘invisible theology’ that proves vital for negotiating changing dynamics of racial identity amid growing ambiguities of twenty-first-century American, transnational, and global contexts (including the post-racial and the post-secular—such as they may be).

The second, more nascent, book (The Word and its Contradiction: Divining Irony in African-American Religion and Culture) frames the concept of irony as a critical trope for understanding convergences of religion and culture in African-American and broader colonial and diasporic contexts. It pays particular attention to ironies of biblical rhetoric in slave narratives, Frederick Douglass’s multiple autobiographical selves, matters of signification and Signifyin(g), Saturday night and Sunday morning, Muhammad Ali, and August Wilson.

Elsewhere I have written on Nat Turner, Bob Dylan, Zora Neale Hurston, American and African-American biblical reception, and the contemporary musical genre known as Death Gospel. Other interests and future teaching / research projects include a comparative study of the Latter-Day Saints and the Nation of Islam, “ruination” in American religion and culture, the uses and abuses of fiction in American religious history, a cultural history of African-American preaching, and the music album as eschatological narrative.


Courses Recently Taught

Publication Highlights


Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (NYU Press, 2017)

Selected articles

“Preacherly Texts: Zora Neale Hurston and the Homiletics of Literature,” The Journal of Africana Religions 4:2 (2016).

Two Ways of Looking at an Invisible Man: Race, the Secular, and Ralph Ellison’s Second Novel,” in Jonathon Kahn and Vincent Lloyd, eds., Race and Secularism in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 153-77.

One Blues Invisible: Civil Rights and Civil Religion in Ralph Ellison’s Second Novel,” African American Review 47: 2-3 (Summer/Fall 2014): 247-66

On the Eirobiblical: Critical Mimesis and Ironic Resistance in The Confessions of Nat Turner,” Biblical Interpretation 21:4-5 (Autumn 2013): 469-93

From Harlem Renaissance to Harlem Apocalypse: Just Representations and the Epistemology of Race in the ‘Negro Novel,’The Journal of Religion 93:3 (July 2013): 259-90

Book Chapters

“From Revelation Back to Genesee: Biblical Reception in African-American Verbal Folklore,” in Eric J. Ziolkowski, ed., Handbook on Biblical Reception in the World’s Folklores (DeGruyter)—forthcoming

“Two Ways of Looking at an Invisible Man: Race, the Secular, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology,” in Jonathon Kahn and Vincent Lloyd, eds., Race and Secularism in America (Columbia University Press, forthcoming)

“Let Us Not Falter Before our Complexity: Barack Obama and the Legacy of Ralph Ellison,” in Heather Harris, Kimberly Moffitt, and Catherine Squires, eds., The Obama Effect: Multidisciplinary Renderings of the 2008 Presidential Campaign (SUNY, 2010): 116-30

Op-Eds and Blogs

“Death Gospel and the Heart of Saturday Night,Sightings (February 9, 2012)

“Updike’s Motions of Grace,Sightings (February 5, 2009)

“E Pluribus Obama,” Sightings (November 13, 2008)

“Religion in Modern Times,” Sightings (August 10, 2006)


Back to People main page >