New faculty Lisa Thompson: ‘Love’ as an action word

MyVU is spotlighting a select group of new faculty for 2019-20. Read more profiles in the series.

Lisa Thompson, MA’11, PhD’13, firmly believes that when the needs of those who are most underrepresented in society are attended to, everyone flourishes. It’s an approach she brings to her new role at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Born and raised in Cedar Grove, North Carolina, Thompson says the communities of her youth had a lasting impact on her work. “I center my work on the lives and experiences of black women first and foremost,” she says. “I believe that if you’re able to attend to some of the most underrepresented voices and support what they need in order to flourish, we all do better.”

Thompson—who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a master of divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a master of art in religion and doctor of philosophy from Vanderbilt—prioritizes her teaching and research around the ways in which religious speech, rhetoric, communication and worship can impact our public discourse and well-being for good or for ill. She thinks about these matters in regard to more conventional religious traditions, as well as in ways that engage less expressly religious mediums, such as artwork, spoken word, music, theater, dance, protest movements and more.

Thompson notes that this interest arose in part from her early childhood experiences at church. “I remember seeing the ways in which religion and faith were tools of empowerment, especially for the women in my life,” she says. “I also remember sitting in church and hearing sermons that I didn’t think were as helpful. The words had consequences inside and outside of the church doors.”

“We have a strong legacy of forward-thinking, and I look forward to being part of this collaboration. We are building something that truly hasn’t been done before.”

Thompson’s book Ingenuity: Preaching as the Outsider examines the ways black women have been able to find their voices in spaces that have traditionally been exclusionary. “I surveyed sermons by black women and thought deeply about how black women are able to find voice and preach even in the midst of being in spaces that are not for their voices, and how black women use creative ways to thrive in these spaces, regardless,” she says.

Thompson’s upcoming book, Preaching the Headlines, is based on a course she created and has taught since 2012. The book focuses on the intersection of social and religious discourse to help communities engage in everyday issues as matters of faith and justice.

After serving as a faculty member at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, Thompson is excited to return to Vanderbilt, her alma mater. “We have a strong legacy of forward-thinking, and I look forward to being part of this collaboration. We are building something that truly hasn’t been done before,” she says.

Ultimately, she wants her work to contribute to creating a more just world. “My hope is to bridge the conversation between the academy and the larger community,” Thompson says. “That people are kinder in the name of faith and religion, and move forward with love being an action word, with real substance and meaning behind it—making the world more livable for everyone.”

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