The New Wave

December 1, 2016
Mayra Rivera Rivera, Professor of Religion and Latina/o Studies

Harvard Divinity School has long been at the forefront of the study of religion. From the New Testament scholarship of Helmut Koester and Krister Stendahl to the founding of the Center for the Study of World Religions and the Women’s Studies in Religion Program, HDS faculty have transformed existing areas of research and pioneered entirely new fields of knowledge. Now, as the School celebrates its bicentennial, HDS is acting aggressively to ensure that its preeminence in critical scholarship not only continues, but also expands.

“For 200 years, HDS has been a leader in the study of religion,” says Dean David N. Hempton. “Today, the School’s faculty is one of the few in the world that can boast some of the top experts in many of the world’s major faiths. As we look to our third century, HDS will increasingly draw scholars from Africa, Asia, and Latin America—as well as Europe and the United States—to reflect the multireligious and complex reality of the twenty-first century.”

Since his appointment as dean in 2012, Hempton has overseen the hiring of some of the country’s leaders in the study of religion. In 2014, for instance, HDS lured the distinguished historian of American religion Catherine Brekus away from rival University of Chicago Divinity School. That same year, Mark Jordan, a pioneer in the study of sexual ethics, gender, and theology, rejoined HDS from Washington University in St. Louis.

The School has also acted to retain promising young scholars as they rise to the top of their fields. In the last two years alone, five junior faculty have received tenure, including Giovanni Bazzana, whose work focuses on the synoptic Gospels and Apocalyptic literature; Charles Stang, recipient of the 2013 Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise; and David F. Holland, an expert on American religious and intellectual history.

Three hires in particular illustrate the breadth and depth of HDS’s new faculty. The theologian Myra Rivera brings philosophy, literature, and politics together to explore modernity, the Latina/o experience, and the postcolonial world. Andrew Teeter continues HDS’s tradition of excellence in the study of the Hebrew Bible and was named Outstanding Teacher by students in 2013 for his mastery in the classroom. Ousmane Kane came to the School from Columbia University in 2012, bringing expertise in Islam, Africa, and political science. Together, this troika represents the “new wave” of scholarship shaping religious knowledge for the twenty-first century.

Professor Mayra Rivera

The word made flesh

Mayra Rivera Rivera

Professor of Religion and Latina/o Studies Mayra Rivera cares about bodies: bodies sent to war, where they are harmed; bodies relegated to slums that are unhealthy or workplaces that are unsafe; bodies that are the place where flesh and blood meet spirit.

“My research looks at the way that seemingly abstract concepts like transcendence, flesh, and glory shape our perceptions of the world—and how those perceptions in turn shape our morals, our values, and our behavior.”

Rivera approaches theology in a way that integrates both the philosophical and the literary. She says that the poetic nature of the Christian texts she studies not only conveys information, but also enables the reader to have an experience that goes beyond words.

“Religious texts entice readers to see and feel differently,” she says. “They use stories, parables, poetry, and metaphors in a way that’s often startling. That’s why I find it essential to incorporate literary approaches in my examination of religious texts—and to consider the ways that the strategies of religious writings enrich literary analysis.”

Through her focus on Latina/o studies, Rivera straddles the intellectual traditions of the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean to bring the literary together with the metaphysical. It’s a stance that is methodological, but also deeply personal and political.

“I learned the history of my own country first through literature, when history texts were unbelievable,” she says. And later, under the influence of writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Gloria Anzaldúa, Edwidge Danticat, Nicolás Guillén, Aimé Césaire, Édouard Glissant, I relearned to take seriously seemingly fantastic stories, and to attend to the political impulse undergirding poetic writing.”

In her recent book, The Poetics of the Flesh, Rivera wrestles with the legacy of colonialism on the bodies of people in the Caribbean, including her native Puerto Rico.

“When I think of the legacy of colonialism in Puerto Rico, I tend to think about material practices—medical experimentation, testing of Agent Orange in the rain forest, the contamination of land around military bases, and restrictions in sustenance agriculture,” she says. “And thinking about such material practices, I am also painfully aware of the marks they have left in our bodies—for many generations.”

Through her theology, Rivera moves beyond technocratic debates about social structures, laws, and economics to the very real impact that history and policy have on the flesh and souls of human beings.

“I was interested in ways to change our perception, to help us sense the connections between ideas and materiality, between words and flesh,” she says. “In Poetics of the Flesh, I sought to offer a way of thinking, envisioning, and sensing bodies that would take seriously how they are shaped in relation to social arrangements—which are always, also, material arrangements—and to take them seriously by understanding them deeply, and reflecting on their ethical implications.”

Professor Andrew Teeter

Listening to voices from the human past

Andrew Teeter

This summer, when you and your kids were sitting through The Secret Life of Pets or some other blockbuster, you were actually watching a pretty sophisticated cultural product. The reason it may not have seemed that way to you is because you grew up with most of the film’s “cultural memes” and processed them automatically. But a story that was written thousands of years ago? Not so much.

That’s the challenge Professor Andrew Teeter takes on with his work on the Hebrew Bible. Teeter teaches students to think in ways that differ, sometimes strongly, from their own native intuition, textual competencies, and training as twenty-first-century readers in order to understand one of the most critical texts of Western culture.

“The Hebrew Bible is a work of immense literary creativity and sophistication,” he says. “Understanding this literature and the thought underlying it requires learning to attend to a variety of sometimes surprising presuppositions, patterns, and communicative strategies. Overcoming this cultural gap poses a major challenge for us today—one that demands a substantial intellectual investment to overcome.”

Teeter has invested most of his own adult life in research and teaching designed to bridge this gap. As a scholar, he explores the poetics and formation of the Hebrew Bible and the diverse modes of literary production attending its early interpretation, all in relation to the development of Jewish thought, belief, and practice in the Second Temple period. Teeter wants to understand how these texts are designed to function as communication, the strategies of discourse and the modes of persuasion they employ, and what the texts expect of readers, the world they project, and the claims they make.

“My work is about understanding early Jewish encounter with scripture,” he says. “Why does the theological discourse of Second Temple Judaism take the forms of expression that it does? What do these forms of literary production mean, and what do they imply for the Jewish thought of the period? These are some of the questions that drive my work.”

“My research and teaching focus on understanding the poetics and formation of the Hebrew Bible and the diverse modes of literary production attending its early interpretation,” he says, “all in relation to the development of Jewish thought, belief, and practice in the Second Temple Period.”

In the classroom, Teeter employs an innovative approach that makes use of digital and other media to illuminate biblical stories written thousands of years ago. His use of everything from impromptu blackboard murals to mashups of pop songs has made him a favorite of students.

“I’m trying to foster an environment in which students can have a transformative intellectual encounter with the material,” Teeter said in the wake of being named HDS’s Outstanding Teacher in 2013. “That means doing anything I can, whether that’s Keynote presentations, bringing in media, film, YouTube clips, or chalkboard drawings. I try anything because each thing will connect with different students.”

While the history of the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible is important in its own right—whether you want to understand Judaism or Christianity—Teeter says that his work is about something more as well. Ultimately, he wants to help people learn to listen to the voices of the human past.

“This work is an encounter with the minds of persons who are in so many ways just like us, despite the vast chasm of time, language, and cultural distance,” he says. “It’s about appreciating the exquisite skill and artistry of this literature, whether or not it corresponds to our own artistic conventions or aesthetic preferences; it is about learning to recognize the profound depth of theological reflection on perennial human problems and how this reflection is brought to literary expression. These outcomes are not only priceless rewards in their own right, they also represent increasingly rare skills that are ever more urgent in today’s society.”

Professor Ousmane Oumar Kane

Weaving Africa into the tapestry of Islam

Ousmane Kane with William Graham and David Hempton

Ousmane Kane, HDS’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society, wants to paint a much broader and more accurate picture of Islam. A leader among a burgeoning group of scholars in the field, Kane works to bring the Muslim heritage of Africa to light.

“In the West, Islam is strongly associated with the Middle East,” he explains. “Even in academia, most of the books published each year focus on that region. In fact, the Muslims of the Middle East represent only 20 percent of the tradition’s 1.6 billion followers worldwide.”

To address this critical gap in religious knowledge, Kane in June published the breakthrough work Beyond Timbuktu. The product of 20 years of scholarship, the book is the first true overview of intellectual history in Muslim West Africa. Kane says that his goal was to tell the story of the process through which Africa was Islamized.

“During the second millennium, the Arabic language played a transformative role in West African history,” he explains. “Some Islamized people in the Sahara gradually deserted their linguistic, cultural, and ethnic identities to claim exclusive Arab identities. Others retained their African languages but used Arabic script to transcribe them, chronicle history, and write poetry. Arabic as a linguistic vehicle of knowledge transmission was as important in the history of Muslim peoples as Latin was in Europe.”

Africans forever changed Islam, Kane says, influencing religious scholarship and intellectual life for more than a millennium. For this reason, it’s impossible to understand the tradition without a picture of how it was shaped by its spread throughout the continent.

“With the spread of Arabic literacy, African scholars developed a rich tradition of debate over orthodoxy and meaning in Islam,” Kane says. “Its rise was strongly connected to centers of Islamic learning outside of Africa. From Morocco to Egypt to the Muslim Holy Lands, African scholars have played significant roles in the development of virtually every field of Islamic sciences. Islamic scholarship in Africa remains just as significant today.”

Kane is also having an impact on the School’s mission to drive the conversation on global religion and to educate men and women who devote their lives to service. Last year he collaborated with colleagues in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences on the Islam in Africa lecture series that brought prominent scholars to campus. In 2017 and 2018, Kane hopes to make HDS the site of two international conferences on Islamic scholarship in Africa. Finally, he is working with the School’s Office of Ministry Studies to develop a course on spiritual cultivation in Islam—perhaps as part of a new initiative in Islamic spiritual life—for students preparing for religious leadership.

“Right now I teach courses on contemporary Islam,” Kane says. “They include ‘Islam, Modernity and Politics’; ‘Religion and Political Violence in the Sahel and North Africa’; ‘Islam in Modern West Africa’; and ‘Muslim Politics.’ In the years to come, I want to develop new courses to help provide a holistic education—particularly to our MDiv students planning a career in ministry.”

At a time when “the Islamic question” is central both to domestic politics and to international relations, Kane says that it’s critical to correct misconceptions about the religion and to draw a more accurate picture of Muslims around the world.

“Those who make news with violence and who get the lion’s share of media coverage represent a tiny minority of the more than 1.6 billion Muslims,” he says. “Yet, they have hijacked Islam. I want to give people a better understanding of the tradition to show that Islam is compatible with democracy and tolerance, that Muslim immigrants can integrate into Western societies, and that Westerners and Muslims can collaborate in a way that is mutually beneficial.”