Co-Chair of Medieval, Renaissance, And Early Modern Studies Program
Co-Leader of Humanities Center Initiative
Ph.D., “with distinction,” University of Chicago (1987)
M.A., University of Chicago (1981)
B.A., “with highest distinction in Religion,” Dartmouth College (1980)
My Love for Teaching
I have always been fascinated by different religions and their cultural manifestations around the world. I have found, and often say, that the critical academic study of religions is one of the best avenues into understanding other human beings, groups, and communities. If you can understand why an individual person or entire group worships a god or gods, or why they will devote their lives to the pursuit of some form of spiritual enlightenment or salvation after death, or, indeed, why they will offer up their lives as a sacrifice in martyrdom, you acquire valuable insight into the nature and psychology of those persons and groups—and into Homo sapiens as a species.
Why I think the study of religion is essential to a liberal arts education
As students at Lafayette come from a diverse range of backgrounds, it is important for them to learn to engage with one another’s thoughts and ideas on a level of civility and mutual respectfulness, especially when discussing a subject as potentially contentious as religion. I try to impart this conviction through the atmosphere of openness I cultivate in my classroom.
Today, for more than one reason, the academic study of religion becomes ever more essential in a liberal arts education. First, it encourages students to understand and appreciate ‘other peoples’ myths’ (Wendy Doniger), for it is impossible to pursue religious studies successfully without confronting and exploring the reality of the plurality of religions. Secondly, religious studies, as an inherently interdisciplinary activity, requires the student to draw upon, and to draw connections between, the insights of various disciplines, and this exercise is conducive to developing a true breadth of intellectual nimbleness and vision.
Also, at a time when people sense themselves increasingly trapped within what has been variously described as the ‘iron cage’ of rationalism (Max Weber) or the ‘immanent frame’ (Charles Taylor), religious studies affords for atheists, agnostics, and believers alike the exciting opportunity to investigate and reflect critically upon any of the myriad ways individuals and groups in different times and places have experienced transcendence of the routine, ‘everyday’ world.
Finally, as a colleague and friend, the Mesoamericanist Davíd Carrasco of Harvard once said in closing his guest lecture here at Lafayette, ‘Religion is weird.’ While religion can offer glimpses of sublimity, it also has aspects that can seem profoundly strange or even terrifying. And that makes the subject all the more fascinating to study!
What students can gain from my courses
Because I am as passionate about my scholarly work as I am about teaching, I take special pleasure in eliciting that same passion from students by directing honors theses, senior capstone projects, and independent study projects. The intellectual, investigative, and writing skills that such individually pursued projects enable a student to develop can have an immeasurably positive influence on the person’s future beyond Lafayette. Over the years, no fewer than 15 students conducting such independent work with me have successfully proposed and presented their work at the highly competitive annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR), which is held in different locations around the country each year.
My Research Interests
I do my research, writing, and speaking mainly in the interdisciplinary area of the comparative study of religion and literature—both written (textual) and oral. Why religion and literature? Literature, and the arts generally, have furnished crucial forms for religious expression from time immemorial. Scholars in religious studies, especially those of us who do comparative work, like to quote the Latin saying: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto—’I am human; [therefore] I deem nothing human to be alien to me.’ Terence, the North African Roman who coined this expression, was not a religious thinker; rather, he was a comic playwright (and former slave) who conveyed those words through the mouth of a character in one of his plays.
Authors who have attracted my special attention over time include the Spanish novelist—some regard him as the creator of the modern novel as a genre—Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) and the Danish theological and philosophical writer Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), considered the progenitor of modern existentialism. I tend to be comparativist in my approach. For example, in my published writings, I have compared and contrasted the uses of the ‘tale-within-a-tale’ motif in Cervantes’ Don Quixote with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Chinese folk novel written during the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), The Journey to the West (Xiyouji). I have also written extensively on Kierkegaard’s relationship to other thinkers and writers, including Socrates, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Shakespeare, Thomas Carlyle, and, in a forthcoming article, James Baldwin.
My personal projects
While devoting myself fully to service to Lafayette College (for example, by heading my department for 15 years and co-directing the Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern Studies Program as well as the Humanities Center Initiative), I have authored four books and edited five volumes of essays (one forthcoming). These books have focused on subjects ranging from religious adaptations of Don Quixote in later literature to the ‘literary’ Kierkegaard; the theory and methods of the study of religion and literature; the theme of ‘evil children’ in religion, literature, and the arts; and Chicago’s 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, a landmark event in the history of interreligious relations and interfaith dialogue.
In addition, I have authored over 50 articles in journals, edited volumes and some 140 encyclopedia articles, and lectured in about 15 countries around the world in Australia, China (Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Suzhou), Eastern Europe (Poland), North America (Canada and throughout the United States), and Western Europe (Belgium, Denmark, England, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, Sweden). Many of the countless photos and anecdotes from my worldwide travels find their way into my PowerPoints, lectures, and classroom discussions at Lafayette, as I am a compulsive visitor of religious sites and places of worship wherever I happen to go.
An area of interest that has occupied considerable time and energy of mine as a scholar over the past couple of decades, both as an author and as an editor, is the study of the literary and cultural reception of the Bible. I have served as the main editor of the ‘reception’ domain of the multiple-award-winning prospective 30-volume Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception for De Gruyter Press in Berlin (20 volumes published to date), and I also am editor of the two-volume handbook The Bible in Folklore Worldwide, also published by De Gruyter (vol. 1, 2017; vol. 2, forthcoming).
It also is worth mentioning that, since 2008, I have co-edited the monograph series Studies in Religion and the Arts (SART), published by Brill, Leiden, Netherlands (in which 18 volumes have appeared to date); that for eight years (2004–2012), I was North American senior editor of the international interdisciplinary journal Literature and Theology, published by Oxford University Press; and that for six years (2008–2014), I co-chaired with Diane Apostolos-Cappadona the Arts, Literature, and Religion Section of the American Academy of Religion.
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to teach such talented, highly motivated students, and for the support Lafayette College has given me as a teacher and scholar. The funding for travel has supported my participation as a speaker, panel organizer, and presider at conferences and other venues around the globe, including Australia, China (five trips there), Europe, the United Kingdom, and North America. David Bishop Skillman Library, with its staff of librarians second to none, has been a tremendous asset to my teaching and scholarship, and I can never say enough in praise of the work of Karen Haduck as interlibrary resource sharing coordinator in tracking down all the sources, many of them extremely obscure, that I request from other libraries practically on a weekly basis. She’s the best!
John Clark, Skillman’s geospatial services librarian, is a gem. He made nine maps of different regions of the world to be included in a forthcoming edited volume of mine, working in close consultation with me as editor and, when necessary, with several of the contributing authors.
I also like to introduce students to the boundless resources available either physically at or digitally (or via Interlibrary Loan) through Skillman Library. I do this not only by discussing or sometimes, in the case of digital resources, demonstrating them onscreen in class, but also by arranging for classes to convene in Skillman for ‘library research sessions’ conducted by Skillman’s expert reference librarians—colleagues like Terese Heidenwolf, Ben Jahre, and Lijuan Xu, among others. Such sessions are invaluable for students, and the librarians are wonderful about tailoring such sessions for course assignments.
Awards and Honors
Member, American Society for the Study of Religion (elected 2009)
Mary Louise Van Artsdalen Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Achievement, Lafayette College (2005)
Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Award for Superior Teaching and Excellence of Scholarship, Lafayette College (1998)
Life Fellow, Society for the Arts, Religion, and Contemporary Culture (ARC) in New York City (elected 1997)
Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Lecture Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship, Lafayette College (1991–1992)
My Personal Interests/Community Work
Member, Northampton County Advisory Council to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, (1990–1998)
Editor, The Bible in Folklore Worldwide, 2 vols. Berlin: De Gruyter. Vol. 1: A Handbook of Biblical Reception in Jewish, European Christian, and Islamic Folklores, 2017; Vol. 2: A Handbook of Biblical Reception in Folklores of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, forthcoming 2023.
Editor, General Co-editor, with Robert A. Segal. A Cultural History of Western Myth. 6 vols. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. Six volumes, consisting of 54 essays edited by seven different scholars. [In progress]