Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Culture makes public launch with open house

NASHVILLE, Tenn. ñ A new and ambitious intellectual initiative at Vanderbilt University takes a significant step forward on Oct. 30, when the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture introduces itself with an open house.

"Religion figures into the reasons for wars and many of the animosities and connections between people," said Douglas Knight, Vanderbilt Divinity School professor of Hebrew Bible and co-director of the CSRC.

"I get calls every week from lay people, clergy and the press on things like hate crimes or posting the Ten Commandments in public.

"Our work will have considerable implications for the broader public discussion."

The CSRC will foster research, scholarship, and curricular innovation at the dynamic intersections of religion and culture. "The subject of our center’s work," said Volney P. Gay, professor of Religious Studies in the College of Arts and Science and co-director of the new center, "is global in both its nature and its scope."

"CSRC faculty investigators will be challenged to examine the world’s cultures as they intersect with any and all forms — and understandings — of religion."

Gay and Knight developed the proposal that last spring won a $3.1 million dollar grant from the University’s Academic Venture Capital Fund in a competitive bidding process.

Faculty members from across the entire University are eligible to participate in CSRC research groups, publication projects and conferences. Divinity and Arts and Science faculty will be eligible for incentives for developing new course offerings in religion and culture.

"The energy and focus of this new center are Vanderbilt’s faculty members," said Knight. "And our model is somewhat unusual for the humanities and the social sciences in the scale of its collaborative and interdisciplinary efforts."

Principal Investigators will convene faculty research groups to wrestle with an approved topic for up to three years. At least two schools and several disciplines will be represented in these groups. "Each group will sponsor at least one international conference and produce a ‘best-in-class’ publication," said Knight.

The center has already awarded several small development grants to groups with promising concepts.

The group furthest in development is engaging the relationship among religion, economics and poverty. That group is being led by Cal Turner Professor of Wesleyan Studies and Theology Douglas Meeks, and James Foster, professor of economics and director of the Graduate Program in Economic Development.

The center also funded a week-long conference at Vanderbilt in July with editors from Cambridge University working on the Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, an 800,000-word reference due to be completed in two years. Daniel Patte, professor of religious studies, New Testament and early Christianity at Vanderbilt, is general editor of the book.

Also in the early stages of development are groups wanting to study civic justice and religious thought; ecology and religion; art, spirituality, and culture; religion, music and HIV/AIDS in Africa; theories of religion; Christianity and world literatures; violence, terror and religion.

Improving graduate education is a second important focus for the CSRC.

This fall, two graduate fellows received full tuition and stipend awards for five years of doctoral study at Vanderbilt. The center also awarded four $4,000 summer stipends to current graduate students for field work.

Jan Holton travels soon to Kenya to conduct interviews with Dinka refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp for use in her dissertation on the so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan refugee population.

Jennifer Eaton examined Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. South, while Jaesung Ha traveled to the Republic of Korea to study female shamans. Lisa Battaglia Owen traveled to Thailand to present a paper and conduct research on her dissertation on sexual consumerism.

The center is part of Vanderbilt’s effort to establish and develop intellectual centers that are transinstitutional in nature. These centers are designed to foster collaborative research by scholars who might not otherwise have the occasion to interact with each other.

"Transinstitutional initiatives not only reflect an important method for acquiring and producing knowledge," said Mark Justad, senior lecturer in religion and society and the center’s executive director.

"Initiatives like the CSRC also have the potential to shift how scholars, and the University as a whole, understand what it means to be academic."

The CSRC Steering Committee includes Dean of Arts and Science Richard McCarty, Dean of the Divinity School James Hudnut-Beumler, and professor of Classical Studies, Susan Wiltshire.

The open house is 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 30, in the Memorial Room of Alumni Hall at Vanderbilt.

Media contact: Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS

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