Cooper Harriss

Cooper Harriss

Associate Professor, Religious Studies

Adjunct Professor, Folklore and Ethnomusicology

Adjunct Professor, Comparative Literature


  • Ph.D., University of Chicago, 2011

About Cooper Harriss

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 the US and around the world. 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, 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.


The Abyss or Life Is Simple
The Abyss or Life Is Simple

Reading Knausgaard Writing Religion

Contributors: Courtney Bender, Jeremy Biles, Liane Carlson, Joshua Dubler, Hannah C. Garvey, Erik Thorstensen, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Cooper Harriss

Journal articles & other publications

“Time, Narrative, and All that Jazz: Ellison, Ricoeur, and Invisibility’s Hermeneutic Circle,” Literature and Theology 32: 4 (December 2018): 423-33.

“Preacherly Texts: Zora Neale Hurston and the Homiletics of Literature,” The Journal of Africana Religions 4:2 (2016): 278-90.

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.

Recent courses

  • Introduction to Religion in America
  • Religion and Sports
  • American Profanity
  • Religion and Detective Fiction
  • American Preaching: Word, Performance, and Media
  • Taking Exception: American Counternarratives and the Study of Religion
  • ‘R&L’: Critical Approaches to Religion, Textuality, and Cultural Imagination
  • Disaster in American Religion and Culture
  • New Religious Movements in the Americas
  • American Religious Historical Fiction
  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in American Religion
  • Race, Religion, and American Literature
  • Jewish American Literature in the Age of the Crisis of Man
  • Readings in American Religious History
  • Gadamer and Ricoeur

Awards & Honors

  • Indiana University Presidential Arts and Humanities Fellowship. 2020
  • Indiana University Trustees Teaching Award, 2019
  • Faculty Fellowship, IU College Arts and Humanities Institute, Fall 2017
  • Young Scholars in American Religion Program, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, 2016-17