VDS Voices

Welcome from Lee Catoe, MDiv’2

Each year, VDS invites returning students to offer words of advice to the incoming class. We hope these stories and lived wisdom will help you navigate your own path at Vanderbilt!

To my siblings,

ILee Catoet is with great joy that I welcome you all to this prophetic community that is Vanderbilt Divinity School. I often ask myself how I got here, and to be completely honest, I have no idea.  As I was growing up in rural South Carolina, the thought never crossed my mind that I would be spending my young adult life in theological education.  My original goal was to become a doctor and work in public health; however, God works in mysterious ways.  I quickly learned that my voice and passion did not belong in the medical profession but found its home in the world of religion and church.  VDS has been the catalyst and the guide for my present endeavors and my future ministry, but (going to be real with you) it is no easy task. We all cope differently; however, here is my advice: listen to others; listen to yourself; and breathe.

One of the most life-giving elements of my time here at VDS has been the ability to listen to other voices, to other passions, and to other stories. Listen to your professors, but also listen to your classmates and colleagues.  Develop, value, and nurture those relationships because it is through relationships that we can be transformed.

Listen to yourself and rest. There are some days when you will not be able to read all that is on the syllabus, and there are some moments when you just can’t make yourself write one more word. Don’t get so caught up in the work that you miss the foundation and reason that we are here at VDS – to serve and prophecy.  Listen to your bodies. When you need to eat, eat.  When you need to sleep, sleep. When we listen to ourselves, we can then truly listen to others.

Lastly, sometimes you just need to breathe.  VDS can be overwhelming with studies, social engagements, protests, heated discussions, etc. Often times, I find myself just sitting and taking a breath. Take time to reflect and to take it all in because the years pass by quickly.  Prayer has been my saving grace in times when I need to process events or get away from the real world.  Find ways to center yourself.

It is here at VDS where you will be challenged, stretched, molded, encouraged, mind-blown, and the list goes on and on.  It is here that you will find your voice and when the Spirit moves, learn how to shout.

Peace and Love to each and every one of you,

Lee Catoe

Posted by on August 24, 2016 in Feature, , , , , ,

Welcome from Joy Bronson, MDiv2

Each year, VDS invites returning students to offer words of advice to the incoming class. We hope these stories and lived wisdom will help you navigate your own path at Vanderbilt!

Joy Bronson and Merry-Reid Shaffer, MDIV2 - #SquadMember

Joy Bronson and Merry-Reid Shaffer, MDIV2 – #SquadMember

As I round the corner into my second year at Vanderbilt Divinity School, I have a few reflections on my past year that I hope will be helpful for first-year students:

  • Do your best to know your “why.” Ask: Why do I believe I am here at VDS? Why am I taking this class? How does this choice fit into and aim me towards the greater narrative that I sense or envision in building my future? We have a limited time to do pretty much everything—including study so it’s crucial and incredibly helpful to be able to identify and prioritize where we focus our heart, spirit, and attention. Reflect on your “why” mid-semester and at the end of the semester, and start over at the beginning of the next. The answers change and evolve just as we will, and following those questions and answers will help us to flow with and follow that evolution. There may still be bumps in the journey, but significantly less than if the journey were just “happening” with us unaware.
  • Seek your #squad. Pretty much everyone at VDS is the nicest person you will ever meet, which makes this difficult for me because I always want to be friends with everyone. That being said, most of us do have specific reasons for being here, and our squads are the folks who will help us to achieve them—either because of their love and support, because we have similar goals and can help one another, or both. I will carry every person in my class with me in my heart and spirit always because just being with one another through our first year we had such profound influences upon one another. But it will be discovering the people who best support and encourage you—who even align with you vocationally—that will enable you to to excel in your time here.
  • There are many people who have gone before you—call on them; lean on them; use ask us for help. There are second- and third-year students in the building or sitting with you in the Common Room or Reading Room. Introduce yourself. Tell us your interests. Ask for #AllOfTheAdvice— about classes, about professors’ teaching styles, about buying books (check the library and with prior students to see if they have them first), about great places to study or chill in Nashville, about where you might move next. Don’t waste time reinventing the wheel when there are people sitting literally next to you who have already done this. And alumni/ae? If you know what you want to experience in Nashville for fun or vocationally, ask advisers, professors, fellow students, Lillian, Niger, or Angela; they’ll know an alum in the area who may be able to help.

Take what you will and are able from this; please share what you are able with fellow travelers. Blessings and love to you on your journey, and I look forward to the time and opportunities that we have to walk together.

Posted by on August 17, 2016 in Feature, , , , , ,


20150510TL065Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our August recommendation is offered by Joe Pennel, Professor of the Practice of Leadership.
Professor Pennel recommends The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious than Ever by Rodney Stark.

After reading Rodney Stark’s book titled The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious than Ever, I have reviewed my previously held notions about the demise of faith in today’s world. Stark, a sociologist of religion, explodes the myth that people around the globe are throwing religion out the window. He relies on surveys from 163 nations to explain why religion is growing.

He argues that the world is not merely as religious as it used to be. It is more religious than ever before. The chapters present statistics on the global religious awakening, giving special attention to large geographical regions. In growing numbers, people in many parts of the world are attending temples, mosques, pagodas, chapels, churches, and small religious groups. According to the surveys, most people who do not attend say they are religious.

He explores both the bright side and the dark side of this growth. In writing about the dark side, he demonstrates how religious enthusiasm can be the root cause of religious hatred and acts of terror. Pain is caused by the combination of globalization and the worldwide intensification of religiousness. On the bright side, Stark documents how people do think about meaning and the purpose of life. People from around the world would not say that life has no design, no meaning, and no purpose. Deep in the heart of people there is a desire to love and be loved and to belong to community. Religion provides answers to these everyday existential questions.

Rodney Stark relies on surveys of more than a million people who live in 163 countries to show that religion is not on the wane. He states, “Eighty-one percent claim to belong to an organized religious faith; 74 percent say that religion is an important part of their lives; 50 percent say that they have attended worship in the past seven days; 56 percent believe that ‘God is directly involved in things that happen in the world’; in very few nations, do as many as 5 percent claim to be atheists; and only in Vietnam, China, and South Korea do atheists exceed 20 percent.” His research points to the fact that only in parts of Europe are the churches are more empty than full. The author maintains that this is not the result of secularization. Europe is a continent of “believing non-belongers.”

Stark argues that secularists have been predicting the near death of religion for generations. He maintains that they are wrong and that the global family is more religious than ever. Some will not agree with his conclusions, but his book has caused me to have second thoughts about what I thought I knew.

Posted by on August 14, 2016 in Read This Book, , , , , ,

Reconciling Peace

A Metadiscourse on Remembering Religion and the Troubles in Belfast

By: Stephanie Downing, MTS2

“Ireland, the continual past.”[1]

This stage direction sets the stage for Northern Irish playwright Stewart Parker’s masterpiece Northern Star. There is perhaps no better setting for a play written in 1984 about the failed 1798 rebellion, led by the United Irishmen, which speaks to the continual challenges, struggles, rebellions, revolutions, and quest for answers to questions of identity, nationality, sovereignty, and freedom that have marked modern Irish history. Towards the end of my trip to Belfast, I saw a production of Northern Star at the Lyric Theatre, 32 years after it premiered in the very same theatre. The play embodied the complex mix of hope, sadness, history, and future I had found in my research and made a profound impact on how I viewed what I had learned. But before we get to endings, we should start with beginnings.

Thanks to the Imagination Grant from Vanderbilt, I was able to travel to Belfast in May to study how the religious dimensions of the Troubles are remembered and discussed. The Troubles refers to the decades of sectarian violence between Catholics/Republicans and Protestants/Loyalists in Northern Ireland, from roughly 1968 until the late 1990s. In my research, I specifically looked at how presentations of religious history intersect with reconciliation efforts. Living in the city gave me a deep appreciation for the complexity of both the Troubles and the reconciliation efforts. Below are some of my reflections of the various places and organizations which contribute to an overall public history of the Troubles and how their presentations intersect with reconciliation efforts.


A wall of murals on Falls Rd (A Catholic/Republican neighborhood)

A mural on the side of a pub near the city centre

A mural on the side of a pub near the city centre

A Catholic/Republican Mural

A Catholic/Republican Mural

A Protestant/Loyalist Mural

A Protestant/Loyalist Mural

Examples of the murals and visitor messages on the Peace Walls

Examples of the murals and visitor messages on the Peace Walls


Examples of the murals and visitor messages on the Peace Walls

It is hard to overstate the prevalence of murals in Belfast. They are everywhere. Murals range from commissioned art pieces to elaborate unofficial community bulletin boards. Murals, along with flags, also serve the purpose of marking neighborhoods and declaring identities and loyalties. West Belfast also has a number of Peace Walls which have become another form of public art.

Black Taxi Tours around the Peace Walls are some of the most popular tourist attractions in Belfast. All the tours tend to go to same places; while on my tour, I counted nearly another dozen taxis tours at one stop alone. The murals themselves change to reflect concerns, temperaments, and issues; most of the ones I saw on the tour were memorials. I was surprised by the overwhelmingly political nature of the memorials and the general lack of any of type of religious iconography. Religious language/ symbolism was most prevalent in the messages visitors scribed on the Peace Walls.

Murals, along with flags, buntings, and pendants, are ways for communities to articulate their identities, cultures, and concerns. The lack of religious iconography is indicative of the ethno-cultural-political nature of division between Catholic/Republicans and Protestant/Loyalists. Although religious monikers are used to identify sides, the theological differences between them have been subsumed into political, cultural differences.

Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts, 174 Trust

Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts, 174 Trust

174 Trust is a Christian organization which aims to be a transformative presence in the community “restoring hope, promoting justice, building peace and providing leadership.”[1] They recently opened the Duncairn Centre for Culture & Art, a multi-purpose space, which includes a preschool, afterschool programmes, various art spaces, and a café. They focus on creating a safe, hospitable space in which all feel welcome; and in doing so, they encourage people to interact with the “other.” Conversations around the past are woven into experiences which foster relationship building and recognition of a shared humanity.

The outside of St. Anne’s Cathedral

The outside of St. Anne’s Cathedral

The Chapel of Unity

The Chapel of Unity

St. Anne’s, also called the Belfast Cathedral, is the cathedral church of the Church of Ireland (Anglican) in Belfast. As such, it occupies a prominent place in the city’s physical and religious landscape. While the church does not specifically mark the Troubles, it tries to create a space in which people of a variety of faith traditions feel welcome. Healing services in the Chapel of Unity have drawn people of various faiths for several decades. A recent series of theological discussion classes has also been very successful, drawing people from many religious and non-religious backgrounds. These courses offer a safe space for people to talk intentionally about theology and its impact on public issues. While not specifically courses in public theology for reconciliation, courses like these give people a place to start to work through and understand the impact of theology on worldviews, politics, public relations, and communities.

Queen’s University Belfast

Queen’s University Belfast

I am particularly interested in how research done by scholars in a university setting is shared with the public. To that end, I met with several professors from various universities in Belfast to ask them about how their work affects the communities around them. All the professors were deeply involved with the communities they studied and made a specific point to be available to them before, during, after, and apart from their research projects. The week I conducted my interviews most of the professors I spoke with also had community speaking engagements.

To highlight one example, Dr. Johnston McMaster and Dr. Cathy Higgins have worked extensively in communities on reconciliation and conflict resolution by teaching adult education courses. Their courses explore theologies and their consequences, including the historical roots of the theological views. Over the years, these courses helped increase mutual understanding, build relationships between Protestants and Catholics, and foster the development of a public theology which acknowledges its historical roots (and consequences) and aims to create a better future.

My trip to Belfast gave me a great respect for those who are working for reconciliation in Northern Ireland. They face a tremendous task to which there is no clear, easy, or universally applicable answer. It can be tempting to look from the outside and wonder “why don’t they…”, “can’t they just…”, “if they only…”, or to visit a peace wall, write a message, and think “I am advocating for peace here.” Peace and reconciliation, however, are not abstract concepts which can be bequeathed to people. They are deeply personal and interpersonal, tied to context, place, and history, and worked out daily in all areas of life. Moving forward in peace and reconciliation requires an understanding and recognition of the past as well as a dedication to the hard work of moving forward in new ways on a new path. I am profoundly thankful for the opportunity to have seen this work in action.

Stephanie Downing, Belfast Castle, Cave Hill Country Park

Stehanie Downing, Cave Hill Country Park (with Belfast in the background)

[1] Stewart Parker, Northern Star, Plays: 2 (London: Methuen Drama, 2000. 1-82. Print.

[2]“Strategic Plan,” 174 Trust, accessed June 16, 2016, http://www.174trust.com/home-horizon/.

Posted by on August 3, 2016 in Feature, , , , , , , , ,

Exploring library archives

by Jonathan Redding, PhD Candidate’17
Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel

In the spring 2016, the students studying Hebrew Bible from the Vanderbilt University Graduate Department of Religion visited Princeton, New Jersey to explore the Princeton Theological Seminary library archives. Below are pictures of some beautiful old bibles, along with the Bible Dietrich Bonhoeffer used when teaching in secret to avoid Nazi imprisonment. It was a wonderful trip, and we look forward to sharing more about our program in the future!

The trip went exceptionally well, and the Hebrew Bible cohort consulted a variety of texts and academic tools. Work completed on this trip will contribute to future projects for these Vanderbilt students, both in and out of the classroom. We are working to continue the active and vibrant tradition of biblical scholarship Vanderbilt has long been known for; we look forward to sharing what comes next!

Posted by on June 29, 2016 in Feature, , , , , , , , , ,

Kudos: VDS alumni/ae newly published and in the news

Our Alumni/ae Tuesday posts on the VDS Voices blog hightlights Vanderbilt Divintiy School and Graduate School of Religion alumni/ae. Hear firsthand about their important work in the community, collaborations with other alumni/ae and faculty, and much more.

Be sure to also check out the Divinity School Instagram feed every Tuesday for our Alumni/ae Instagram Takeover Day. Each week, we will showcase a different alumnus/a as they document their day in photos. Follow @VUDivinity on Instagram today!

If would like to contribute a post to the Alumni/ae Tuesday Guest Post series, or participate in our Alumni/ae Instagram Takeover Day, please email Addie Sullivan (addie.sullivan@vanderbilt.edu)  in the Vanderbilt Divinity School Alumni/ae office.

In the News:

Andrew William Smith, MTS’15, quoted in The Presbyterian Outlook article, Marks of Faith: Tattoos as testimony



Eric Brown, MTS’10, MA’13, shares his story of being asked to be a member of the Nashville Pride board in the Tennessean Op-Ed, Fitting into humanity when you don’t seem to fit in



For nearly 20 years, Becca Stevens, MDiv’90, has dedicated her life to helping women escape prostitution, addiction and trafficking — and providing a place for them to heal. CNN honored Rev. Stevens as the Hero of the week!



* On May 27th, Parnassus Books welcomed Damien Durr, MDiv’11, for a discussion and signing of his new book,  “Journey Towards Greatness”.

For years, Damien Durr has believed in the power of prayer, serenity, reflection, and the imagination. As a result of his personal, professional, and spiritual journey with others, he has identified areas that aid in increasing clarity regarding one’s purpose in life. His journey has connected him with students in the Metro Nashville Public School System, the Children’s Defense Fund, and faith based institutions across the country.   He has helped facilitate various initiatives and discussions surrounding childhood education, justice, and the prison industrial complex.

Presently he serves as the Youth and Young Adult Pastor at the Temple Church, Consultant for the Children’s Defense Fund, and President & CEO of DCD Empowerment.
Share your journey on Facebook.

* Yung Suk Kim, PhD’06, has published the new book, “Messiah in Weakness: A Portrait of Jesus from the Perspective of the Dispossessed”.

The book raises a host of questions about weakness and Jesus: What is weakness (astheneia)? Was Jesus weak? Or did he simply identity with the weak? How did Jesus see God and the world? How can we explain Jesus’ death in view of this lens of weakness? Can we see God and world from the perspective of weakness? Can we also read biblical characters through this lens of weakness? How should we see ourselves?

Yung Suk Kim web site

Rev. Carol “Anandi” Richardson, MDiv’93, M.P.H. published “Mornings with the Masters: Mystical Journeys in a Postmodern World”

On one level, Mornings with the Masters reveals the inner transformation of Richardson as a rationally religious Christian and scientific skeptic, who, through daily meditation becomes an interfaith mystic and connects with God, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Paramahansa Yogananda, Mother Mary, and other Ascended Masters. On another level, Mornings with the Masters reveals the truths that the various Ascended Masters teach her. Primary among these truths are: first, “We Are One;” and second, Jesus, Buddha, Mother Mary, Master Lao Tzu, Lady Kwan Yin, Paramahansa Yogananda and other Ascended Masters are working together to raise people’s consciousness to an Enlightened state through meditation. Mornings with the Masters is for truth seekers, for those who would like to know how to experience Divine Presence, for those who seek peace through inner transformation, for those who would like to know what to do to seek union with God, and for those who are serious in their quest for Self-Realization.

Posted by on June 21, 2016 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Alumni/ae Tuesday – Keith Caldwell

Our monthly Alumni/ae Tuesday Guest Post series on the VDS Voices blog highlights posts written by VDS and GDR alumni/ae. Hear firsthand about their important work in the community, collaborations with other alumni/ae and faculty, and much more.

Be sure to also check out the Divinity School Instagram feed every Tuesday for our Alumni/ae Instagram Takeover Day. Each week, we will showcase a different alumnus/a as they document their day in photos. Follow @VUDivinity on Instagram today!

If would like to contribute a post to the Alumni/ae Tuesday Guest Post series, or participate in our Alumni/ae Instagram Takeover Day, please email Addie Sullivan (addie.sullivan@vanderbilt.edu)  in the Vanderbilt Divinity School Alumni/ae office.

While enrolled at Vanderbilt University Divinity School it became apparent to me that the instruction about religion that was being provided through a rigorous academic analysis of Biblical texts needed to be placed in dialectic with the devotional religious instruction that had formed my faith.

I became a member at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church, located in North Nashville, and within the first year of school I was selected to become a Strengthening the Black Church for the Twenty-First Century (SBC-21) Intern. The program is designed to help predominately black United Methodist Churches become more effective in mission and ministry.

My then pastor, Reverend Dr. Vance P. Ross, was working on his dissertation and had called a group of a half-dozen men together in order to make room for them to be in conversation about issues that were directly affecting their lives, issues that were not being addressed by the Church. The group began as a support group that agreed to name explicitly the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth as the spiritual framework from which they interpreted their reality. We named ourselves Brother’s Keeper because we realized the importance of both holding each other up, and holding each other accountable. Our numbers went from roughly just over a dozen men in the first three months to over thirty-five men at every Wednesday night gathering.

Many of the men have experienced profound social and political marginalization. The group understands itself as, “Coming to the Church through the back door.” Some of the men have served out felony convictions and are working to be re-integrated into society; some of the men have battled chemical addiction and are actively in rehab programs; some have simply not been able to make sense of how systems of violence, like racial profiling, has criminalized their very embodiment.

Over the past year the group has witnessed extraordinary healing. Men have secured meaningful employment and have been restored to familial relationships that they had fractured; they have been restored to healthy community.

This past November, Mayor Megan Barry came to Pearl-Cohn High School and asked the community to help respond to the spike in violence that primarily occurred in North Nashville, the economically poorest area in the city. The men rose to the occasion and showed up in numbers for the community gathering. They have been in conversation with youth who have been identified as “at risk” by making plain where desperate decisions will cause them to land. We are currently working with over thirty youth who are being given a re-orientation of who they are; they are gaining the understanding that they are made in the Image of God.

The group also has become keenly aware that even though they are being held accountable for their personal responsibility that unjust systems remain in place that continue to subordinate their lives. They ask if the Church will provide the prophetic witness that was commanded at its commissioning.

Keith Caldwell, MDiv’15




Posted by on May 10, 2016 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, , , ,


Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our March recommendation is offered by Choon-Leong Seow, Distinguished Professor of Hebrew Bible.

Professor Seow recommends Volume 12 of the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception.




Volume 12 of the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (EBR) has just been published by de Gruyter press of Berlin, Germany. Part of a massive thirty-volume project involving an international team of editors, EBR treats all topics pertaining to the Bible, from its background to its interpretation and reception in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, as well as other religions, in scholarly works, literature, the visual arts, music, dance, and film.

EBR is not like any other reference works on the Bible, for it goes far beyond the Bible, even for biblical topics. Thus, the entry on Idols, Idolatry does not simply treat the topic in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament, it also discusses idols in the Ancient Near East as revealed through texts and archaeology (statues, depictions on wall-paintings, and divine symbols and attributes), perspectives on idols and idolatry in Judaism and Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Taoist traditions, but also literature (including Dante, Milton, and Kierkegaard), and film (such as Cecil B. DeMille’s various movies, Denys Archand’s Jésus of Montréal, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Stanly Kubrick’s Dr. Strangle Love). The related topic of Image of God includes the visual arts (including Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo), music (e.g. in Bach’s cantatas and Haydn’s oratorio), and film (e.g., the recent movies The Prince of Egypt and Noah). Humor and Wit treats in the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, Judaism (including in the modern period, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen), Christianity (including Christopher Moore’s The Bible According to Biff, movies like The Life of Brian, and Madonna’s use of the Cross as a prop), literature, and film.

Equally broad ranging are entries like Holocaust (Judaism, Christianity, literature, visual arts, music, and film), Human Rights and the Bible (Judaism, Christianity, film), and Hymns (including the ancient Near East, literature, classical music, and film). There are articles on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim exegetes, artists, poets, novelists, and musicians from antiquity to the present. This volume in fact includes an article by GDR alumnus of the year Professor James Crenshaw on his teacher, James Philip Hyatt, who taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1938-1972. Particularly interesting, too, are topics found in no other dictionaries, such as Horror (on the Bible in horror fiction and film), Holy Grail (in Christin literature and film, and among new churches and current religious movements,” the Hui People (a Muslim people in China, the impact of the Bible, both directly through their encounter of eastern Christians and as mediated through the Qurʾān), Hoaxes (forgeries in the ancient Near East, earlier Christianity, and modern forgeries of artifacts from the world of the Bible), Illuminated/Decorated Bibles.

This rich and fun resource for scholars, pastors, teachers, and artists is available at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library both in print and, perhaps importantly for our alums, easily accessible online.



Posted by on May 8, 2016 in Read This Book, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A note to our Class of 2016

It was the spring of 1998. Europe was in the final stages of agreeing on a single currency, the euro. The Good Friday Accord had just been reached in Northern Ireland. Back in the United States, the President was embroiled in a White House sex scandal. And closer to home, on the speakers of high school graduation ceremonies from Hendersonville to Hollywood, Green Day’s “Time of Your Life” imbued sentimental seniors with enough nostalgia to gloss their education in rose colored glasses.

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test and don’t ask why
It’s not a question but a lesson learned in time

Commencement brings a mixed bag of emotions. There is enormous relief and celebration. There’s the anxiety about next steps. There’s saying goodbye to friends who have seen you through the best and hardest moments of your Divinity career. And then there are all the questions left unanswered, the theological works-in-progress which will continue to be cultivated in you over the course of a lifetime.

Theological education is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.

Fortunately, your training is well under way. In your time here, I know you’ve felt the thrill of the starting line, the surprise of that first pothole, the weariness of seemingly endless miles, dehydration in oh-so-many-forms, and what runners affectionally term “chafage.” For you, Commencement will be a major milestone of achievement, but (sorry!) it’s not the finish line. Yours is a journey that continues on the streets of the city, down the aisles of congregations, across dividing lines of race and class, and toward that beloved community that so often seems a distant mirage.

Here, too, you have discovered that you are not alone on the journey. I hope you’ve heard the fans – your family and friends and yes, even the faculty – cheering from the sidelines. I hope you drew strength from classmates running beside you, sometimes guiding the way a few steps ahead and sometimes pushing you onward from behind. I hope you felt your theological muscles stretch and grow as they hit their limits and then discovered new capacities beyond.

So take the photographs and still frames in your mind
Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time
Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial
For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while

Not many people know that the official title of Green Day’s hit song is actually “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life.)” What an apropos juxtaposition for this moment! But we who have studied the psalmist know there is not always contradiction in lament and praise. My hope and prayer for you is that the fullness of your experiences here will serve you well in the years ahead. May you help the world hold together its joy and pain with tenderness and empathy. May you discover beauty and strength in unexpected places. And may the road ahead lead you always toward greater kindness, justice, mercy, and peace.

It’s something unpredictable but in the end is right
I hope you had the time of your life

Katherine Smith
Assistant Dean for Admissions, Vocation, and Stewardship

Posted by on May 4, 2016 in Feature, , , , , , , , ,

READ THIS BOOK – April 2016

Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our March recommendation is offered by Graham Reside, Executive Director, Cal Turner Program in Moral Leadership for the Professions and Assistant Professor, Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

Professor Reside recommends “The Myth of Religious Violence” by William T. Cavanaugh.

Since 9-11, scholars from across the disciplines have sought to locate the etiology of contemporary violence within the soul of religion.  And why not?  It seems that each day we hear of another egregious act of violence committed in the name of God.  Whether it is suicide bombers crying Allahu Akbar, or American politicians taking recourse to religious rhetoric to describe their justifications for war, religion has come to play a central role in our current political drama.  As I began to reflect on the nature of religiously based violence in the context of religion and globalization, my colleague and friend, Professor Melissa Snarr, recommended I read William Cavanaugh’s book, the Myth of Religious Violence.  This book provides an important brake on the idea that religion is somehow genetically and uniquely violent.

Cavanaugh examines theories of religious violence, noticing three basic themes: 1) Religions are absolutist; 2) Religions are divisive (creating an “us and them”); 3) Religions are irrational.  Together, these “truths” mean there is no hope for reasoning toward compromise or agreement.  Under these conditions, the argument goes, religiously motivated violence is ever a temptation.

Cavanaugh challenges this view.  First, he demonstrates that these three tendencies are hardly limited to religion.  But second, he argues that the myth of religious violence – the idea that religion is particularly prone to violence – is part and parcel of the legitimating ideology of secularity.  According to secularity’s myth of religious violence, the West’s invention of secularity provided an alternative to religious violence.  By dividing religion from State, and situating the religious in the realm of the private, the secular solution put an end to religious violence.  This prescription remains operative today.  This is perhaps best articulated in the common argument that for peace to prevail in the world we must await a Muslim Reformation, which would separate religion into the private and introduce the secular solution.  For like Europe in the 16th century, the Muslim world’s problem today is too much religious fervor, and the cure will be privatized religion and more secular rationality.  I admit this has seemed persuasive to me, as I have listened to the stories of religiously motivated violence, from ISIS to Al Qaeda to Boko Haram;  however, Cavanaugh reminded me that the secular is hardly the peaceable alternative it pretends to be.  Violence can and does come in secular forms, as wars, drone strikes, colonial ambitions, economic immiseration, and state-sponsored killing demonstrate.  It may be true that most Americans will no longer kill for the God of the Bible, but most remain willing to kill for Country (or to have the State serve as their agent).  But do the dead care about the legitimating institution?  This is why Cavanaugh refers to the myth of religious violence: not that there is no violence done in the name of religion.  Of course there is.  But focusing on religion as somehow uniquely prone to violence obscures from view the much broader reality of violence in its secular forms.  Secularization represented the transfer of the authority for violence from religion to the State.  It did not, in fact, represent a diminution of violence itself.  Ask those on the underside of globalization about the source of the violence they experience and they will point to economic and political forces.  Ask African Americans in this country about the source of violence, and often they will point to our (secular) Police State, and not to some prophet calling for religious purity.  Religion is not exempt from the accusation of violence, but neither is it uniquely violent.  And focusing on religious violence, according to Cavanaugh, is the secular magician’s trick, concealing the gun held in the other hand.  Violence comes in many guises.  As religious people, we would be wise to recognize our own tendencies toward violence, but we also should be prepared to draw back the curtain on secular forms of violence as well, while bearing witness to the peaceable alternatives, which remain elemental to our faiths.

Posted by on April 17, 2016 in Read This Book, , , , , , , , , , ,


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