Amaryah Armstrong and Zac Settle were not themselves. Instead of donning their metaphorical scholarly robes, each took on unique characters from a role-playing game. On the surface, the moment seemed more about entertainment than political theology.

But, for Armstrong, a Virginia Tech assistant professor in the Department of Religion and Culture, this was so much more than playtime. This game was to prepare for an upcoming episode of the Assembly Podcast she and Settle, her co-host, produce through the Political Theology Network, a hub for exploring the intersection of religious and political ideas and practices. 

Although the gaming episode has yet to air, the podcast offers more than two seasons of programming. It tackles topics that are often considered controversial, dealing with the intersections of the political and the religious.

Armstrong and Settle, who took over as co-hosts in January 2020 for the free podcast, have a two-year contract. Their past shows include book discussions about Houria Bouteldja’s “Whites, Jews, and Us”; Gil Anidjar’s “Blood” and his critique of Christianity and political theology; and Michelle Sanchez’s “Calvin and the Resignification of the World: Creation, Incarnation, and the Problem of Political Theology in the 1559 Institutes.”

The podcasters also interviewed Matthew M. Harris and Tyler B. Davis about James H. Cone and his role within the Black radical tradition, Black internationalism, and Black Marxism. Najeeba Syeed and Lap Yan Kung discussed such topics as race and religion, interfaith justice work, and the role of the church in the Hong Kong protests. And the team talked with Nathan Kalman-Lamb about his work on sports, race, and social reproduction.

Armstrong said one of her favorite episodes aired in February. During this show, she and Settle talked with Ross Gay, a poet, essayist, and professor at Indiana University, about his recent “Book of Delights,” and the explorations of politics, finitude, and meaning present there.

“I really enjoyed our conversation with Ross Gay,” Armstrong said. “He’s pretty well known in my circles, and I thought it would be weird, like interviewing a celebrity. But he was so down to earth and lovely to interview. We ended up having a generative conversation and talking about poetry and sports and all kinds of things in between.”

It is the latter part of the statement that attracts Armstrong to political theology. She describes her academic concentration as a broad range of intellect studies. Her research centers on race, religion, and sexuality, but 19th century history and the philosophy of religion are also of interest.

And then there is political theology, which she discovered while working on her master’s degree in theological studies from Emory University. 

“I was reading literature and the works of theologians, political scholars, and cultural theorists for the course,” she said. “These were subjects I had enjoyed before, yet the ways in which political theology asked questions — and the topics it was asking questions about, such as race and political legitimacy — I found very compelling. I started reading more in that area of study, and it kind of just stuck with me.”

So, when Settle, a peer from Vanderbilt University, where Armstrong had earned her doctorate in theological studies, learned that the Political Theology Network was looking for a new host for its podcast, he suggested Armstrong partner with him on the venture. She agreed.

Armstrong had made guest appearances on other podcasts, and producing her own was appealing. Even better, splitting the hosting with Settle would allow her to focus on her interest — the technical aspects of the production — whereas Settle would handle the administrative duties.

“This feels like a good balance of work for the podcast,” she said, “and then we both get to enjoy talking to people and reading things together.” 

She believes they both place a high value on what it means to think collaboratively. They invite their guests to be part of that thought process and talk about how their work involves communality. The show is much less about debate and much more collective in nature.

“It’s about the intersection of politics and theology,” she said. “We understand both in broad terms about life and meaning making. And so we are interested in how different authors or scholars or artists are bridging the gap between how we work together, and how we make meaning together.”

Written by Leslie King