‘Noah’ film spurs scholars to share research on ancient flood myths

FORUMS - Imagining Noah

Montage of Noah depictions. Image via floodofnoah.com

The release of Darren Aronofsky’s film, “Noah,” provided an opportunity for Ingrid Lilly to connect her research on ancient flood stories to today’s pop culture.

Lilly, a Hebrew Bible scholar who received her Ph.D. in 2010 from Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion (GDR), recently created the website, floodofnoah.com, where she and colleagues, several of them alumni or current students at Emory’s GDR, began writing essays and sharing research on ancient flood myths. With the release of “Noah,” the website used the film as springboard for dialogue.

“Genesis and flood stories are some of my favorite things to teach,” says Lilly, currently a visiting scholar at the Pacific School of Religion. “With the website, I wanted to put the academic study of the Hebrew Bible on display for the general public, and the movie is a great opportunity to showcase ancient Mesopotamian flood stories.”

After being featured on public radio’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook,” Lilly noticed floodofnoah.com garnering more views by the general public. She recognizes that floodofnoah.com can offer a different conversation around “Noah.”

“We are trying to elevate the national conversation around the movie,” she says. “We put a huge effort into producing academic responses to the movie. Different colleagues were assigned a theme or a topic and there are about 20 essays all tackling a different aspect of the film.”

Support from Emory colleagues

To create the wide range of content for floodofnoah.com, Ingrid Lilly asked several of her colleagues from Emory’s GDR to help produce essays and content on the site. One of the website’s editors and contributors, Jackie Wyse-Rhodes, is a Ph.D. candidate in Hebrew Bible at Emory.

Wyse-Rhodes is writing her dissertation on depictions of the natural world in ancient Jewish apocalyptic literature. Her research is rooted in works like 1 Enoch, which was inspiration for certain aspects in Aronofsky’s “Noah.” In her essay on floodofnoah.com, Wyse-Rhodes discusses Aronofsky’s interpretive choice to include rock giants, called the Watchers in the film.

“The idea of the Watchers does come from Genesis, but they are not called Watchers there but Sons of God,” says Wyse-Rhodes. “Between 200 BCE through 200 CE, apocalyptic literature was popular and some writers took the four verses in Genesis about the Sons of God and expanded them into a 36-chapter story in 1 Enoch called, ‘The Book of the Watchers.’”

Wyse-Rhodes notes that Aronofsky’s representation of the Watchers does differ from 1 Enoch and other ancient Jewish apocalyptic literature. “With the Watchers, Aronofsky makes a move that is totally unique. In ‘The Book of the Watchers,’ we read that the Watchers longed for families, so they descend to earth and marry women. In ‘Noah,’ they descend because they feel sorry for Adam and Eve when they are kicked out of the garden.”

Aronofsky made some other interpretive choices about the Watchers as well. In the film, the Watchers are punished when they come to earth and they become rock giants. “The rock giants are pure Aronofsky,” says Wyse-Rhodes.

rock giants

Illustration of the Watchers from Aronofsky and Handel’s comic book, ‘Noah’. Image via floodofnoah.com.

Although there are some differences, Wyse-Rhodes enjoys Aronofsky’s interpretative choices. “What I do love of Aronofsky’s interpretation is that in Genesis, the flood is humanity’s fault. Aronofsky preserves that but lets the Watchers play a part. In ‘Noah,’ the Watchers help Noah build the ark, which is also in 1 Enoch.”

Unlike 1 Enoch, the film shows the Watchers being redeemed when they are taken back to heaven. In ancient literature, they are judged and punished.

Other Emory GDR contributors to the website include: Kelly J. Murphy, editor, Kent Brintnall, Christopher B. Hays, Amy Cottrill, Megan Bishop Moore, Nicole Tilford, and Adam Ployd.

Noah, pop culture and social issues

exhibit - rockman - ark

‘Ark’ by Alexis Rockman. Image via floodofnoah.com

Not only does floodofnoah.com incorporate aspects of ancient flood myths, says Lilly, it also open up “social issues connected to the flood, the main one being climate change.”

The film has received criticism for having an environmental agenda, but Wyse-Rhodes feels that Aronofsky’s emphasis on the natural world as “righteous and being without fault” is in line with ancient Jewish apocalyptic interpretations of the natural world.

“Aronofsky’s movie firmly places fault for desecration of the world, which he depicts through strip mining greed and extinction, as the fault of humans 100 percent,” notes Wyse-Rhodes. “And that agrees with the flood story in Genesis where human corruption and greed bring the flood. Humans are the reason God deems the flood is necessary, and the natural world, including animals, is what needs to be saved.”

While climate change is a concern in the film, there are other avenues to explore the flood story in American pop culture. “When we talk about the culture of Noah’s flood today, there are a lot of ways it crops up in American culture, like young earth Creationism, comic books, depth psychology, post-Katrina disaster art, and futuristic architecture,” says Lily.

“We want to give thoughtful reflection on American religion and how the flood continues to live in our culture today.”

two arks

Two arks. Set design for Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ and a design plan for Creation Museum’s sister theme park, Ark Encounter. Image via floodofnoah.com.

Benefits for professors

As Lilly publishes and discusses essays with contributors, she has been exposed to new content on flood myths.  “Someone let me know about a manuscript of Genesis from the 11th century the other day. It contains a picture of Noah’s ark as a Viking Ship. The authors took poetic license and describe the journey of the ark like a medieval expedition on the sea.”

As a general editor, Lilly hoped that the website could gather content like the 11th century manuscript, and by doing so, professors could have greater exposure to materials on Noah and the flood. As a professor, Lilly recognizes that faculty spend a lot of time searching for videos, art or a song to incorporate in their lectures, and the website can help provide these materials.

The site also has made an impression on its contributors. “In thinking about how to produce a website like this for the public, it helps academics open ourselves to the public,” says Lilly. “And this opens us up to different conversations that we could be tackling in our work.”

Not only does the website broaden the form of writing, floodofnoah.com sheds light on the reception of the history of the Bible. “Because we are all trained in separate fields, a biblical scholar will know far less about how the Bible was received by Islam or how it was produced in medieval art,” says Lilly. In creating the website, she has been amazed by how many discoveries have been posted in areas like this, noting that the Bible has been an interesting trajectory to follow through human history.

In collecting these materials, Lilly sees the website’s project as creating social goods, such as allowing people to reflect on the Bible in our culture today. While Lilly recognizes that the Bible “is sort of owned by ideologically polarized groups,” she hopes the website helps “unlock the Bible” in an illuminating way.

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‘On the Border’ course takes students to center of immigration debate

"Most people know this, but they forget that immigrants are humans first. They are mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. They have hopes and dreams," says Jessica Turner, a first-year M.Div. student. Photo by Trey Comstock.

“Most people know this, but they forget that immigrants are humans first. They are mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. They have hopes and dreams,” says Jessica Turner, a first-year M.Div. student. Photo by Trey Comstock.

Students in David Jenkins’ and Marie Marquardt’s course, “The Church on the Border,” at Candler School of Theology gained first-hand experience with the people and places at the center of the U.S. immigration debate during a recent travel seminar led by the two professors to southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico.

The group spent time talking with founders of the Sanctuary Movement, local residents working with the Samaritans, a judge who presides over Operation Streamline trials, Mexican artists designing public art for the wall, migrants recently deported or in detention, college students developing resources for DREAMERS, as well as lawyers and local activists on both sides of the border. One of the highlights of the trip was home stays in Nogales, Mexico.

The travel seminar was hosted by the nonprofit organization Borderlinks, and the staff person who was guide, driver and interpreter was a young United Methodist missionary intern named Alex Devoid. It turns out his father, Ben Devoid, is a Candler alumnus, and is a United Methodist elder in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Graffiti on the U.S.-Mexico border wall serves as a makeshift memorial to those who died in the crossing. Photo by Trey Comstock.

Graffiti on the U.S.-Mexico border wall serves as a makeshift memorial to those who died in the crossing. Photo by Trey Comstock.

The group spent time talking with church goers, community members, lawyers, activists, artists, business people, and the migrants themselves. They also walked the border, stopping at the gravesides of three migrants who died in the desert.

Jenkins, an associate professor in the practice of practical theology and director of contextual education at Candler, says that the issue of immigration requires “a sophisticated response, both theologically and politically.”

Students from Candler School of Theology's "Church on the Border" course spent time walking the border between southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. Photo by Trey Comstock.

Students from Candler School of Theology’s “Church on the Border” course spent time walking the border between southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. Photo by Trey Comstock.

He and Marquardt, scholar-in-residence at Candler who works with Hispanic congregations in metro Atlanta and directs the El Refugio ministry near the south Georgia detention center, both feel that part of that sophistication comes from encountering the issue where it is lived out day to day.

"It was powerful to realize that after walking so far through the desert, they died so close to civilization," says first-year M.Div. student Jessica Turner. Photo by Trey Comstock.

“It was powerful to realize that after walking so far through the desert, they died so close to civilization,” says first-year M.Div. student Jessica Turner. Photo by Trey Comstock.

Their students agree.

“Meeting with migrants in Nogales who had just recently been deported has marked my perspective indelibly,” says Janelle Adams, a first-year M.Div. student from Dallas, Ga. She hopes eventually to work as a liaison between churches and refugee/immigrant communities.

“There is something important to me about physically being in a space,” says Trey Comstock, a second-year dual degree M.Div.-M.P.H. student on the ordination track as an elder in the United Methodist Church. “Many opinions and perspectives are contained within the literature, but I get a lot more sitting face to face with someone and hearing their story.”

“I believe we could not understand many of the realities of the border until we got there,” says Ruth Ubaldo, a first-year M.Div. student from Portland, Ore. “It was only when we shook hands with people, ate meals together, talked about art, remembered the deceased, and walked the desert ourselves that we could begin to understand the complexities of immigration.”

“We stopped at three memorials for immigrants who died within sight of houses,” says Jessica Turner, a first-year M.Div. student from Fayetteville, N.C. “We paused for a short prayer and moment of silence to honor and remember each life. No lecture or book can capture that feeling.”

“I want people to know that immigrants are people,” says Ubaldo. “My parents moved from Oaxaca [Mexico] to Oregon so their kids could have a chance to have a different life than they did.”

"It is one thing to read about the desert or see pictures but actually walking through the terrain is another experience," says first-year M.Div. student Jessica Turner. "The desert has sloping, rocky hills, with many plants that can harm a walker." Photo by Trey Comstock.

“It is one thing to read about the desert or see pictures but actually walking through the terrain is another experience,” says first-year M.Div. student Jessica Turner. “The desert has sloping, rocky hills, with many plants that can harm a walker.” Photo by Trey Comstock.

“Many within our church walls and beyond are uneducated and uninformed of the extreme reality that our brothers and sisters from south of the border experience, both in their own countries and here in America,” says Randy Perdue, a second-career M.Div. student who previously spent 20 years in banking.

He now is seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church. “We need to speak to the Latino people in our communities and listen to their reality,” he says, “and learn what we can do to make a difference in their quality of life.”

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Erskine’s ‘Plantation Church’ links early African experience in U.S., Caribbean

Plantation Church BookcoverNoel Erskine’s life and ministry have crossed the borders of the United States and the Caribbean, and in his recent book, “Plantation Church,” he connects the African-American church in the U.S. to the Caribbean church by focusing on their shared origin–the plantations.

Following the mindset of W.E. Dubois, Erskine, professor of theology and ethics at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, acknowledges that the plantation is “the sociological reality that Africans were brought to in the Americas, whether in the American cotton fields or the sugar cane fields throughout the Caribbean.”

It is out of this location that plantation church emerges, “as people of African descent brought their religious practices to this reality” says Erskine. While both regions share the plantation, Erskine’s research emphasizes the Caribbean as the starting point of black religious experiences in the Americas. “Slaves began to arrive in the Caribbean in 1502, more than 100 years before slaves set foot in America,” says Erskine.

While black religious experiences have developed differently in the United States and the Caribbean, “Plantation Church” looks to their similarities and offers an intriguing approach to scholarship on the American “Black Church” experience by situating its origins in the Caribbean.

Survival at the Heart of Plantation Church

When addressing all of the ways in which slavery dehumanized individuals, Erskine continues to return to the question: How did slaves survive?

After traveling across the Atlantic “packed like sardines” to a foreign environment that greeted them with enslavement, Africans looked to the continuation of African culture as a means for survival, Erskine says.

Within African culture, many religious practices supplied the forms of transcendence, which helped lift slaves out of the conditions of slavery, he says. Dancing and drumming served as occasions where slaves could commune and actively participate in forms of liberation. For Erskine, forms of African religious practices such as these remain at the heart of the plantation church.

While situating African religious practices at the heart of plantation churches, Erskine also notes the critical role Christianity plays in the formation of plantation churches.

“The only religion that was authorized on the plantations was Christianity,” says Erskine. “In many ways, slaves were able to merge and blend their African practices with Christian practices as another means of survival.”

To do so, Erskine emphasizes the openness maintained by slaves. Because slaves were open to incorporating the Bible to their religious practices, while also upholding their memories of Africa, the plantation church formed, providing a means for survival and a place to dream.

Africa, Jesus, Family

Noel Leo Erskine

Erskine returns to themes of Africa and Jesus throughout the book. In his introduction, he offers his grandfather and father as representatives of these two themes and their relationship to black religious experiences in the Americas.

Erskine’s Grandpa Tata represents the notion of “Pure Africa.” He connected the spiritual to the natural landscape. Erskine remembers sitting with his grandfather by the spring where his grandfather would tell him to be quiet and listen to the birds and the stream. For slaves, the rivers or the fields were reminders of Africa and forms of worship occurred there.

Alternately, Erskine recognizes his father as a man who accepted Jesus over Africa, who went to seminary due to his understanding of Jesus as the necessary means for liberation. Within the book, Erskine struggles with how Africa and Jesus help construct the plantation church, whether in opposition or united.

Church Outside of Church

While slaves were encouraged to go to their master’s church, Erskine points out that these worship services typically were not adequate for the slaves. The formal setting remained closed to African practices, he says, and early participants continued to make space and time for their own culture, their own religious practices.

The Old Plantation

The Old Plantation, 18th century American folk painting via Wikipedia

Erskine feels that the real experiences of plantation churches occurred primarily outside of the formal services we know today. “Slaves created church outside of the church. They would steal away to the forest, brush arbor, the stream, there they would do their thing. They would commune with spirits, commune with God,” he says.

Even today, Erskine feels that the notion of creating church outside of church can still be seen. He notes that until recently, African drumming and dance continued to be too African for formal church services, yet people still made occasions to be drawn into the spirit through these practices.

“Even when you think you close the door to Africa,” he says, “I think once the people gather, African culture and religion seeps in.”

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Legacy of Bible’s King David revisited in new e-book

King David is one the most prominent names in the Bible, and, according to Emory University religion professor Jacob Wright, the most human.

“We find him [in the Bible] from his very early days fighting Goliath, his ambition, his thirst for power,” Wright says. “He’ll do anything that will take him to the top… He sets his sights on the throne, but [he] also encounters on the way many downturns, many pains.”

Wright’s new e-book, “King David and His Reign Revisited,” uncovers the reasons David is portrayed in an unflattering light in the Old Testament before his history is redefined in the book of Chronicles. Wright is an associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory’s Candler School of Theology.

“That David (in Chronicles) is a much different one,” Wright explains. “[He] does not have a very human face. He’s much more of an icon, a symbol, and what I call a ‘catalyst of Israel’s unity.’”

Artwork for Chapter One of the e-book.

Wright’s examination of David ranges widely, from why early David stories were combined with early stories of Saul, to his assertion of power, to his war with son Absolom and exile, to the revisionist history that caps the complex and often unflattering accounts of Judah’s first king.

“So why didn’t the biblical authors present a more flattering portrait of their most famous king?” asks Wright. The answer, he says, lies with the purpose of the biblical project as a whole, which attempted to come to terms with “the fate of the collective people.”

This people had a state that was founded by David, and that state was destroyed, says Wright. “The destruction of that state poses the questions: Who are we? How are we going to live? Can we persist as a people?”

Through David’s story, says Wright, the biblical writers show “that statehood does bring great security to people, but at a high cost.”

While the Bible itself is devoid of images, the e-book includes images of King David  through the ages to accompany the text, allowing readers to see the layered history of interpreting his life, says Wright.

Citations in Scrollable Windows.

Also included is a new system for footnotes (citations in scrollable windows) and direct links to articles, websites and videos. Readers can highlight as they read, and share notes via email or social media.

Wright says the e-book aims to take a fresh look not only at how King David has been interpreted by scholars and what we know about him historically, but also to examine “why he is such an important figure for us in the contemporary world.”

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Students learn caring for others means caring for yourself

"Theologians Losing to Gain" is about forming self-care, says student organizer Trey Comstock.

“Theologians Losing to Gain” is about forming self-care, says student organizer Trey Comstock.

This week marks the first session of a 10-week initiative, “Theologians Losing to Gain,” where students at Emory’s Candler School of Theology and Rollins School of Public Health will get advice, direction and incentive towards establishing patterns for a healthy lifestyle.

“The overall idea is not just about weight loss, but about forming self-care,” says Trey Comstock, a dual student at Candler and Rollins and an organizer of the 2nd annual Theologians Losing to Gain. “What happens to the physical self is intimately related to every part of our being.”

Candler students are committed to the care and improvement of society, says Comstock, but as they balance academic studies and work in ministry, time for personal self-care can get squeezed out. The workshops reinforce Candler’s commitment to providing ways for students to engage their physical health in ways which spotlight the body’s connection to the mind and soul.

Self-care helps pastors care 

As a pastor, Comstock recognizes the connection between personal self-care and his relationship with his congregation. On his path towards a healthy lifestyle, Comstock credits his congregation as a key factor for improvement.

“As a pastor, the focus is on caring for our congregation, and committing to a healthy lifestyle is a better way to live a healthy life in totality,” says Comstock, “To ignore my physical health is to ignore a key aspect of living the full aspect of life in Christ.”

Weekly check-ins

This year, Theologians Losing to Gain will assist 30 to 40 students on their path to healthier lifestyles by presenting them with various health tips, weekly exercises and a few weigh-ins throughout the 10-week period.

Every week, participants will receive emails where weekly goals and advice will be provided. Within each email will be the competitive element of acquiring points through challenges offered by the program.

Challenges can involve an exercise, like holding a plank, or tracking your meals for the week. Completing challenges earns points for students to track online. For people interested in weight loss, there will be a weigh-in every other week, but weight loss does not have to be someone’s main incentive for joining the program.

It’s about stewardship

While weight loss is a goal for many, the general theme of participants’ interest this year is stewardship. Students’ applications showed that many participants hope to find ways to improve being a good steward of their bodies.

“Physical health is a key part to spiritual health as well,” says Comstock. “We tend to artificially separate the three, mind, body and spirit, but they enrich each other.”

Similarly, Candler’s Office of Student Programming recognizes the threefold connections between mind, body, and spirit and the importance of caring for students’ holistically during their time in seminary. With events such as “Poor Seminarians Cooking Demos” and “Seeking Sanity in Seminary,” the office strives to make accessible the resources needed to find balance and rhythm in the midst of busy schedules.

Recently, initiatives out of the student programming office have focused on practices of spiritual formation.

The Rev. Ellen Echols Purdum is assistant dean of student life and spiritual formation at Emory's Candler School of Theology.

The Rev. Ellen Echols Purdum is assistant dean of student life and spiritual formation at Emory’s Candler School of Theology.

“What I have been trying to do is create, structurally and programmatically, ways in which we can continue to educate students how they can grow spiritually in a holistic way,“ says Ellen Echols Purdum, assistant dean of student life and spiritual formation. “For the past two years at student orientation, we have an introduction into practices of spiritual formation. We heard a great response from students on activities with movement, including yoga and African dance.”

With this feedback, the office organized a recent workshop on yoga as a form of interactive art and body prayer. Led by Vancouver yoga instructor Ingrid Hauss, Candler students and faculty participated in an interactive experience where artwork, yoga and prayer were combined for a holistic form of meditation. In one session, Hauss led students through a form of the Lord’s Prayer where each line of the prayer connected to a movement of yoga and a piece of art sketched by Hauss.


Connecting with ancient practices

One goal of the workshop was to help students’ connect what they are learning about church history to current spiritual practices.

“Prayer with the body is an ancient practice of Christianity,” says Purdum. “The ancient desert fathers and mothers were out praying with their entire body with fingers extended saying, if you want you can become all flame. After the split of the church into East and West, the West understands prayer as only a mental practice.”

Instructor Ingrid Hauss teaches yoga as a form of interactive art and body prayer.

Instructor Ingrid Hauss teaches yoga as a form of interactive art and body prayer.

Purdum wants to continue to highlight the body and movement. In March, she will accompany a group of students to the Green Bough House of Prayer in Adrian, Ga., for a silent prayer retreat. Purdum credits the opportunity to be in silence, enjoy fresh, prepared meals as a group and walk in an outdoor labyrinth as the highlights of this trip, which leaves her with more applicants than available spots each year.

Ultimately, Purdum hopes to provide “more opportunities for students to find the rhythm of study, prayer and leisure in their time at seminary. With new students every two or three years, we are always going to come back to helping students find the rhythm of life, wherever they can do it.”

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‘Sacred Matters’ designed with ‘nones’ in mind

Church on Mainstreet by Don O’Brien via Flickr

Church on Mainstreet by Don O’Brien via Flickr

At last, there’s a magazine aimed at reaching the fastest growing religious group in the United States. “SacredMatters,” a new online venture, is dedicated to public scholarship that delves deep into the phenomenon of the so-called “nones,” those who claim to be spiritual but not affiliated with any established faith group.

Hosted by Emory University, “Sacred Matters” is co-edited by Gary Laderman of Emory and Michael Altman of the University of Alabama, two scholars who aim to go against the current flow.

“The project emerged out of discussions Gary and I had about religion and culture over the past few years,” says Altman. “We both kept coming back to the ways people find the sacred outside of traditional religious traditions in things like music, art, popular culture and sports.”

More recently, the “rise of the nones,” the 20 percent of Americans who claim no religious affiliation, pushed them to think about how the sacred functions outside of traditional religions and “in places we usually think of as ‘culture,’” says Altman.

And in unlikely places as well. “We’re looking at religion in the cracks and crevices of culture,” Laderman says.

The magazine’s premiere articles range widely across the cultural landscape: Eminent American church historian and Emory emeritus professor Brooks Holifield gives his take on “Why do Americans seem so religious?” Duke Middle Eastern studies expert Shalom Goldman contrasts American and Israeli attitudes toward medical marijuana—of course it’s titled “Holy Smoke.” Rounding out the offerings is Emory religion graduate student Alexis Wells’ discussion of singer Beyonce as a model of liberative praxis.

In a world of ever-faster output of digital offerings tied to the subject du jour, “Sacred Matters” is dedicated to “slowing down a lot of the output around religion,” says Laderman.

Both editors acknowledge this change in style and focus means the magazine won’t be following the news cycle of religion and politics stories.

“We want to get off the well-worn topics and find new currents in religion and culture,” says Altman. “We hope to bring interesting stories that you wouldn’t expect from scholars, who nevertheless are committed to writing for a more general audience.”

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Real Good Food: Ayres explores link between food, faith

Emory’s Jennifer Ayres knows good food. For her, it’s not just about the taste and presentation but rather the item’s history, how it was produced and distributed.

“I’m trying to redefine good food so that it doesn’t exclude taste, because that is an important part of it,” Ayres says, “but that also includes attention to how the workers are treated, if the farmers are able to make a living, and how people in urban settings are able to get food at an affordable price.”

Her new book, “Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology,” explores the link between food and faith, a natural for Ayres, director of the Religious Education Program at Emory’s Candler School of Theology.

Ayres says the idea for the book came from working with high school students in Candler’s Youth Theological Initiative. When students became excited by spending a day gleaning produce from a community garden, Ayres was inspired.

“The book is about people and communities who want to make a response that’s faithful to God but also helps human beings and creation,” Ayres explains.

Like other religions, Christianity, which “Good Food” mostly focuses on, regularly revolves around a table, the Eucharist, during worship as congregants partake in Holy Communion. Ayres wants readers to understand the connection between that table and every other table where people dine.

“To me, the core moral and faith formation issue is to re-inscribe that sense of interdependence,” she says. “I am dependent on the land. I am dependent on workers. We all are woven together in this interdependent network.”

This spring, Ayres and Carol Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament and director of the Graduate Division of Religion, will co-lead a webinar titled “Food and Faith: Eating as a Spiritual Practice,” one of a series of free webinars offered by Candler faculty.

View REAL Change: Ayres’ ‘Good Food’ Brings Theology to the Table.

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To honor Mandela, practice Madiba, says Emory’s Franklin

Robert Franklin

As the world lays to rest former South African President Nelson Mandela in his home village of Qunu, Emory’s Robert Franklin, senior adviser for community and diversity to the provost, is calling for others to commit themselves to what he calls “practicing Madiba,” which he first outlined at a remembrance of Mandela held on campus this week.

“Thanks to his recognition that we are interdependent, the ethical core of Ubuntu, we can only appreciate Mandela in the context of his clan, his village,” says Franklin. “He is Madiba, so we cannot deify him without lifting the women and men who stood with him.

“My fundamental belief is that we should commit ourselves to ‘practicing Madiba,” Franklin says. “My field is social ethics, and I am interested in mobilizing arguments and agents to improve the quality of human community through adherence to principles of justice, fairness, inclusion and enabling the self-fulfillment of all people.

According to Franklin, practicing Madiba means three things.

1. Practicing Madiba is an intellectual mandate.

“It is the art of discovery and learning and the courage to change one’s mind in the face of new evidence and stronger arguments,” says Franklin. “For many years, Mandela rejected the social analysis and political agenda of communism. His Christian values and his suspicion of foreign philosophies closed his mind to it.”

But Mandela met people whose lives deeply impressed him. “When he saw communism embodied and practiced by courageous friends, he realized that he must learn more about what animated them,” says Franklin. “He bought the collected works of Marx, Engels and others and read them. And, as a true intellectual, he began a dialogue with new sources that led to a new openness to those whom he had rejected before.”

After becoming president, however, Mandela moderated his views again, making what a recent New York Times story called a “complicated journey to support free markets and a free economy.”

While in prison, Mandela also learned Afrikaans “because he wanted to have the key capacity of the intellectual in a diverse society,” says Franklin, including “the ability to listen and speak across cultural chasms, the ability to be bilingual and multilingual, and to move eventually from being culturally literate to culturally fluent.

“Practicing Madiba requires that we keep open minds, and restless hearts for justice, fairness and opportunity for the least advantaged members of society,” says Franklin.

2. Practicing Madiba is an ethical challenge.

“He was a transformative moral leader not because he was perfect,” says Franklin. “He begged us not to transform him into a symbol because he was a flawed human being risking large things.

“He did not have to talk to his former enemies. He did not have to seek reconciliation with DeKlerk. But, he did so because that is what moral leaders do,” Franklin points out. “They act with integrity on behalf of the common good.”

After the prisoner became the president, says Franklin, he initiated the Truth and Reconciliation process, “a process that would take the nation and individual souls through the depths of hell and agony, but might lead to a deeper healing and the possibility of a better future.

“Practicing Madiba may lead you to use unconventional methods, develop unlikely partnerships, and engage in unpredictable dialogues in order to advance the common good,” says Franklin. “He was criticized for talking to controversial leaders. But, that is the risk that moral leaders take.

“Practicing Madiba is about transparent communications that may involve taking risks to produce breakthroughs.”

3. Finally, practicing Madiba is a practical social change process.

When he was incarcerated, black prisoners were not allowed to wear long pants but were given shorts like children, says Franklin. “Black prisoners were not allowed to have white sugar but given brown sugar instead. Apartheid was a heinous social system with vicious law and policy, but it was also a collection of micro-assaults and micro-aggressions on black dignity.

“But Mandela met each one with dignity,” says Franklin. “He transformed the situation through micro-resistance and micro-reconciliation.”

Mandela’s example provides wisdom for the larger community, says Franklin. “We can transform aggressions with respectful resistance and a commitment to truth and reconciliation.”

Franklin, who returned recently to Emory for the third time, previously has served as the university’s Presidential Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics, as director of Black Church Studies at Candler School of Theology, and as a senior fellow at Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion.

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Now trending: Candler dean looks to future of seminary education

Emory's Candler School of Theology was named one of 18 "Seminaries that Change the World" for its innovation in theological education.

Emory’s Candler School of Theology has been named one of 18 “Seminaries that Change the World” by Faith3.org, a website promoting the engagement of young people in the church. The seminaries were cited for demonstrating “great innovation in theological education.”

Below, Candler Dean Jan Love discusses the trends in theological education that have led Candler to create five new degree programs this fall, and her hopes for the new degrees in serving both the church and professionals outside the church in new ways.

What key trend in theological education are you watching?

Theological education has always had substantial diversity, but the institutional forms through which education is being delivered are becoming even more diverse in our current era. That is in large part because of the variety of ways that higher education is becoming more diverse and the ways that congregational life is becoming more diverse.

What are some examples of the increasing diversity in theological education?

One approach is the proliferation of models for addressing the multi-faith environment of the United States. Schools that have historically had a clear Christian identity and a clear mission to form Christian leaders for pastoral and other forms of ministry are beginning to explore the possibility of training rabbis, imams and others who lead religious traditions other than Christianity.

In the United Methodist Church, Claremont School of Theology created Claremont Lincoln University to educate leaders of other faith traditions alongside Christian leaders. We couldn’t have fathomed this 30 years ago, in part because the mix of religious traditions in the United States has become far more varied and vibrant since the 1960s, when trends in immigration brought many more Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sihks and those with religious affiliations other than Christianity into the country.

The United States is now one of the most religiously diverse populations in the world. Some seminaries are responding to this new religious America by training leaders from various religions with a common curriculum and in the same classroom. Others, like Candler, continue to have a clear mission of training Christian leaders who are well-educated about other religions and fully equipped to create community and understanding in religiously diverse cities, town, and rural areas.

Whether an institution adopts the multi-religious model of educating students from several religious traditions within the same classroom, or the single tradition model of educating Christians with substantial preparation for engagement with other religious traditions, our great hope is that leaders across various faith communities will learn how to reach across deeply held differences to help tackle concrete problems that all people face.

What about smaller seminaries? Are there other models out there?

Another example is that an increasing number of seminaries are no longer freestanding. They are coming under the umbrella of another university or college or a large local church.

One recent example is Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in South Carolina, which is now part of Lenoir-Rhyne University. Another is St. Paul School of Theology, which is now renting space from The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, one of the largest congregations in the denomination.

When a seminary merges with a college, university, or church with a large physical plant, the school can concentrate on a whole range of challenging issues (like faculty development, curriculum, church relations, etc.), rather than maintaining buildings, managing an endowment, and similar operational essentials.

On the other hand, the seminary gives up some of its autonomy in order to be “sheltered” within a larger entity. There are benefits to being free-standing and benefits to being embedded. Some free-standing schools have recently made the calculation that becoming embedded enhances the economic viability of their institution’s future and the long-term care of their physical plant. Other free-standing seminaries will continue to be free-standing having made a different calculation.

Is the growth in online education also a reflection of this creativity?

Absolutely. The tremendous growth in online education provides the possibility for schools to attract students who need more flexibility in their schedules while still receiving high quality instruction.

What impact do these significant changes have on the approach to/quality of Christian theological education?

Most seminaries acknowledge that digital delivery is here to stay and welcome it. Many faculty have used various creative digital techniques within their classes that meet face-to-face every week, and many will now offer one or more courses fully online, just as faculties within most colleges and universities do.

Theological schools will vary considerably, however, in their decisions about which degrees to offer fully online. Some, for example, believe that the Master of Divinity (M.Div.), the main degree that credentials those who seek ordination, must have considerable if not predominant “incarnational” components—in-person interactions with their community of students and faculty, such as worship, that enhance their classroom experiences. This represents the view of Candler’s faculty.

Other institutions have chosen to offer the M.Div. degree fully or almost fully online as a matter of providing access to a wider range of students who seek to be ordained or who simply want the degree.

Those schools that do not expect to offer the M.Div. online may well offer other degrees online. Candler, for example, will offer a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) degree online.

We do not yet have an accumulation of sufficient evidence to know what, if any, the differences are in students’ capacities to excel in ministry with these different forms of pedagogy in various degree programs. I’m sure someone will study this in the not too distant future.

What’s the overall trend driving the need for this diversity and creativity?

The number of schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) is growing, but the number of students who are seeking a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree is declining. So, it’s a matter of supply and demand in the most common and traditional degree seminaries offer—the MDiv. For some denominations, including those considered mainline or historic Protestant churches, enrollment is declining sharply for the MDiv degree especially.

Moreover, the various forms of church are changing fairly rapidly, which necessarily implies that theological education must change, too.

According to the Association of Theological Schools, the number of minority students grew by 55 percent over the past 20 years. Isn’t that leading to enrollment growth?

That growth made a huge difference in enrollments in recent years, and among Asians, Latinos, and international students (called “visa” students in ATS language), the numbers may continue to climb. Among African Americans, however, this growth may now have leveled off. The same seems to be true for women as well.

Since the population of the United States is becoming more racially mixed, educating leaders who are persons of color is a wonderful and crucial opportunity for schools of theology. Educating women for ordained ministry, however, continues to be among the most contentious issues in Christian churches and theological education.

Why is seminary enrollment declining?

One of the reasons is that people in the United States are less religious overall and are less attached to institutions. This is backed up by data from the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project. Many people will not be attending the church of their parents, if they go at all. Institutional loyalty or family heritage isn’t playing as large a role in selecting a church.

Pew studies show that the U.S. population is becoming less attached to religion in general. There are more “nones”—people who aren’t affiliated with any religious tradition—than before. Many of these nones feel drawn to what we might call religion, but they don’t like to use that term.

What effect does the increase in the “nones” have on seminaries?

The overall decline in seminary enrollments, particularly in some Christian traditions like the “mainline churches” in the United States, results in some seminaries closing and some making very new strategic choices. A lot of institutions that have been historically important in theological education in the United States were built under the presumption that this part of the Christian family would continue to grow across time. Instead, this portion of Christian presence in the United States—Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc.—is declining demographically. Most of the seminaries that have served these churches are also smaller than they used to be. Some have closed.

In contrast, others are growing. For example, Latino immigration represents substantial growth in the Catholic Church in the United States, and Catholic seminaries seem to be doing well overall.

Moreover, some seminaries that educate students for quite conservative Christian protestant traditions (e.g., those that do not ordain women) or non-denominational churches seem to be doing well overall. The ATS categorizes this group of institutions as “evangelical,” in contrast to the other two ATS categories, “mainline” and “Roman Catholic/Orthodox.” Candler, like our peer schools, is in the “mainline” category.

How is Candler responding to these trends?

We’ve been asking ourselves, “If the church is changing, do we need to change the way we’re serving the church?” The answer is “yes.” One of the ways is the return of the Doctorate of Ministry degree, which is a practitioner’s degree. It is designed for those working hands-on in the local church. And, it’s Emory University’s first doctoral program online. It allows those already serving in the church to continue their work while furthering their education and enabling them to put this new knowledge to work immediately in practical, concrete ways.

We are deeply dedicated to serving the church. Eighty percent of students in the last decade have gotten the MDiv degree. But, if there are fewer people wanting the MDiv because there are fewer churches to serve, we have to find other ways to serve the church.

We’ve also asked, “If there are leaders in the church who are not ordained, do we have anything to offer them?” The answer is “yes.” The new Master of Religious Leadership degree is aimed at them. Many churches have people serving in ministry positions who aren’t ordained. Whether they work with youth, music, outreach or administration, they can enrich their ability to serve and improve their marketability by furthering their education.

Why is Candler now offering a degree for professionals outside the church?

Religion permeates every aspect of life. We discovered that accountants, nurses, social workers, doctors, lawyers and many others need to know more about religion than in generations past, especially in light of the growing religious diversity of the country. We want to offer them the opportunity to learn about religion at Candler so that their professional engagements that involve religious dimensions can be completed more easily and more productively.

Our new Master of Religion and Public Life program will create much more robustly informed lay people in the church and in society. If the people in our communities become more educated about religion in public life, they hopefully will be better citizens.

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An animated discussion of the living dead

Cory Andrew Labrecque, Raymond F. Schinazi Junior Scholar in Bioethics and Religious Thought, answered questions about the current fascination with zombies and what we can learn through discussion of “Zombethics.” Labrecque is the co-chair of the second annual “Zombies and ‘Zombethics’” symposium Friday, Nov. 1 at Emory’s Center for Ethics.

How do you explain the current fascination with zombies?

Zombies – or, at least, the ones I have in mind – are animated beings that challenge our definitions of life and death, and our categories of living and dead. How can talking about a walking cadaver or the “living dead” – ostensibly oxymoronic images – not be fascinating? And since they do not seem to pose an immediate threat to us (as far as I can tell), entertaining thoughts about them doesn’t elicit too much fear or anxiety. It also helps that zombies are often depicted on television and in film as slow-moving, which gives me some hope – if all of this was real, of course – that I would be able to outrun them. Not the picture of bravery, I admit, but all of this is part of the fascination: trying to figure out how we would survive the zombie apocalypse.

Cory Labrecque, co-chair of the second annual “Zombies and ‘Zombethics’” symposium

What will your lecture at Emory be about?

I will be talking about this rather strange fascination that many of us have with the zombie genre. This should lead neatly into a discussion about the growing interest in this genre in the academy and the “pedagogical value” of zombies. In our first panel, a professor of history and a professor of biology will take up “Lessons Learned from the Zombie Apocalypse,” which is the subject of their forthcoming book. As an educator, I too am interested in pushing the boundaries of my own coursework. I expect my students to be able to take the content and skills they cultivate in my classes and apply them to contexts that are different than those I have exposed them to. Zombies are intriguing; they stir students to ask all kinds of questions. I will be talking about why the zombie genre is a helpful one for thinking through difficult ethical issues.

Why do we use zombies for these kinds of debates?

In addition to being innovative (I think), there is a certain appeal to the zombie genre because it can be constructively engaged by scholars in different academic disciplines here at Emory. Specialists in religion, neuroethics, medicine, disability studies, bioethics, film studies, and so on, can reframe familiar questions such as: when is a human being no longer a person? What is death? What is free will; do zombies have it? What is the ethics of quarantine and isolation? How do you allocate scarce resources when pandemics or disasters hit? Is there a time when you can throw up your hands and abandon ethics altogether? When the end is near, as they say, does this also mean the end of ethical conduct? We will get to many of these questions in the symposium.

What does the fascination with zombies have to do with religious thought?

I am interested in eschatology – the study of “last things” – in what and how the religions think about death and postmortem existence. So, zombies seem to be a natural (actually, I am not sure that zombies are “natural” at all!)  fit for conversations about these concerns. Again, what is death? If, theologically, we might say that it is the separation of body and soul, for instance, then what is going on with the zombie? How might we talk about the sanctity and dignity of the human body in this context? How might we talk about the idea of a merciful, compassionate God in the midst of a zombie apocalypse? What happens to human relationships here? One of our panels takes up a question that is raised time and again in “The Walking Dead” series: what should we do when someone we love becomes a zombie and tries to eat us? Many of these are important and perennial questions outside of the zombie framework . . . well, maybe not the very last one.

What kind of ethical issues can we examine through portrayals of zombies and the undead?

My colleague, Karen Rommelfanger (who joins me in chairing Zombethics), and I are adamant about making plain to our audience members that although panelists might connect certain zombie characteristics to symptoms experienced by particular patient populations, this is to serve only as a starting point for difficult conversations – especially in bioethics – and should in no way trivialize what patients and their caregivers go through. Patient narratives are real and the way we think about them have serious implications. The zombie apocalypse is an imagined phenomenon through which we can ask pressing questions without being all that concerned for how the implications of our discussion might affect the zombie community. Here we might ask: Is the zombie a person? What do we owe the zombie? Is this still my relative or family member after he or she has been zombified?

What do you hope people will come away with in these discussions?

I hope that the audience will want to continue the conversation beyond the symposium, engaging the difficult questions we bring to the fore over the course of the day, both in the not-so-real context of zombies and in the real world we live in. I want my students to be able to identify – in the panelists’ presentations – a number of the ethical issues that we have seen in my “Catholic Bioethics” class, for instance, and be able to think about them in a constructive, integrative, and analytic way that draws out the importance of the moral imagination.

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