M. Cooper Harriss

Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies

Adjunct Professor, Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology


Sycamore Hall, Rm. 207


Ph.D., University of Chicago, 2011

Research Interests

Professional Biography

My research and teaching deploy a wide range of 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 in US and transnational contexts. My recent work explores certain religious and theological dimensions of the concept of race, tracing critical religious terms of its development and cultural expression in American, African-American, and global contexts.

Toward these ends my first book, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (NYU 2017), marshals archival research, close readings, and studies in religion, literature, and secularism, aiming broadly at two objectives: 1) It highlights the transformative perspectives that religious and theological studies can bring to prominent, yet problematic figures like Ellison, whose work defies more ordinary categories of cultural assessment, and 2) stakes the larger and equally ambitious claim that Ellison’s literary conception of race—a thoroughly ‘secular’ category—articulates an ‘invisible theology’ that proves indispensable for negotiating changing dynamics of racial identity and the terms of its representation amid the ambiguities of its twenty-first-century contexts.

My next project, tentatively titled Muhammad Ali and the Irony of American Religion represents the first book-length assessment of the boxer Muhammad Ali as a religious figure. Rather than simply situating Ali within a broader trajectory of “American religion,” however, I argue that he offers a lens for reframing the terms of postwar American religion. Doing so shifts the emphasis away from older conceptions rooted in Protestant denominational histories, attention to religious freedom and cultural diversity, and other narratives grounded in American exceptionalism, arguing instead that through attention to dimensions of the global and transnational, race, gender, sexuality, law, poetics, bodies, disability, and the emergence of Islam as an American religion—all of which Ali comes to represent through the many valences of his public persona—Ali redefines “American religion." Neither hagiography nor conventional biography, Muhammad Ali and the Irony of American Religion offers an ambitious alternative path for American religious studies.

Elsewhere I have published on Zora Neale Hurston, Nat Turner, Bob Dylan, Kurt Vonnegut, biblical reception in American literature and folklore, the concept of irony, and the contemporary musical genre known as “Death Gospel.” My essays and reviews have appeared in African American Review, Biblical Interpretation, Callaloo, The Immanent Frame, The Journal of Africana Religions, The Journal of Religion, Literature and Theology, and Soundings (among other venues). Past and future courses and teaching interests include religion and sport, irony, American preaching, the “profane” in American culture, and religious dimensions of various literary forms and genres, including historical fiction and detective fiction.


Courses Recently Taught

Publication Highlights


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

Muhammad Ali and the Irony of American Religion (in progress)

Selected articles

“Time, Narrative, and All that Jazz: Ellison, Ricoeur, and Invisibility’s Hermeneutic Circle,” Literature and Theology (forthcoming)

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

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

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.

“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

Op-Eds and Blogs

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

Radio and Podcast Appearances

One Blues Invisible: Ralph Ellison’s Pledge,” Interchange on WFHB-FM

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology,” The Religious Studies Project

Six Scholars Discuss the Dissertation to First Book Process,” The Religious Studies Project

The Faith of Muhammad Ali,” Religion and Ethics Report, Australian National Radio

Zora Neale Hurston and the Blues,” Interchange on WFHB-FM


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