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Alumni News

McLester Colloquium with Benjamin Zeller

On Wednesday of last week, our faculty and graduate students gathered in Graham Memorial Building for our first McLester colloquium of 2017. The speaker was Benjamin Zeller, Associate Professor of Religion at Lake Forest College and a PhD graduate (2007) of our department. In his lecture, titled “Religious Suicide and the Puzzling Case of Heaven’s Gate,” he gave a historical overview and analysis of the religious movement known as Heaven’s Gate, which drew media attention in 1997 after several dozen of its members committed mass suicide at their group residence in Rancho Santa Fe, California.


Prof. Benjamin Zeller


Question from the audience

At the beginning of the event, Susan McLester Kemmerlin, daughter of Bill McLester (after whom the colloquium is named), presented our department with a beautiful stitching of UNC’s academic seal!

UNC stitching

Susan McLester Kemmerlin with department chair Randall Styers

See you soon at the next McLester colloquium!

Posted in Alumni News, Events, Graduate Student News on February 23, 2017  
Anne Blankenship’s Recent Book

GregoryAnne Blankenship (PhD 2012), who is currently an assistant professor in History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at North Dakota State University, recently published a book titled Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II (UNC Press, 2016). The book offers an incisive analysis of the place of Christianity within Japanese American internment camps during World War II. From the UNC Press website:

“Anne M. Blankenship’s study of Christianity in the infamous camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II yields insights both far-reaching and timely. While most Japanese Americans maintained their traditional identities as Buddhists, a sizeable minority identified as Christian, and a number of church leaders sought to minister to them in the camps. Blankenship shows how church leaders were forced to assess the ethics and pragmatism of fighting against or acquiescing to what they clearly perceived, even in the midst of a national crisis, as an unjust social system. These religious activists became acutely aware of the impact of government, as well as church, policies that targeted ordinary Americans of diverse ethnicities.

“Going through the doors of the camp churches and delving deeply into the religious experiences of the incarcerated and the faithful who aided them, Blankenship argues that the incarceration period introduced new social and legal approaches for Christians of all stripes to challenge the constitutionality of government policies on race and civil rights. She also shows how the camp experience nourished the roots of an Asian American liberation theology that sprouted in the sixties and seventies.”

Posted in Alumni News on February 15, 2017  
Rabia Gregory’s Recent Book

GregoryRabia Gregory (PhD 2007) is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Missouri. Rabia’s recent book, titled Marrying Jesus in Medieval and Early Modern Northern Europe: Popular Culture and Religious Reform (Ashgate, 2016), examines a fascinating concept within medieval religious culture. From the Routledge website:

“The first full-length study of the notion of marriage to Jesus in late medieval and early modern popular culture, this book treats the transmission and transformation of ideas about this concept as a case study in the formation of religious belief and popular culture. Marrying Jesus in Medieval and Early Modern Northern Europe provides a history of the dispersion of theology about the bride of Christ in the period between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries and explains how this metaphor, initially devised for a religious elite, became integral to the laity’s pursuit of salvation. Unlike recent publications on the bride of Christ, which explore the gendering of sanctity or the poetics of religious eroticism, this is a study of popular religion told through devotional media and other technologies of salvation. Marrying Jesus argues against the heteronormative interpretation that brides of Christ should be female by reconstructing the cultural production of brides of Christ in late medieval Europe. A central assertion of this book is that by the fourteenth century, worldly, sexually active brides of Christ, both male and female, were no longer aberrations. Analyzing understudied vernacular sources from the late medieval period – including sermons, early printed books, spiritual diaries, letters, songs, and hagiographies – Rabia Gregory shows how marrying Jesus was central to late medieval lay piety, and how the ‘chaste’ bride of Christ developed out of sixteenth-century religious disputes.”

Posted in Alumni News on January 11, 2017  
Ultimate Concerns Podcast with Ron Mourad (B.A., 1994)

Ultimate ConcernsDr. Ron Mourad is Professor of Religious Studies at Albion College in Michigan, where he specializes in the philosophy of religion and Christian theology. After graduating from the Religious Studies department at UNC-Chapel Hill (with Honors) in 1994, he pursued further studies at the University of Chicago, where he received an M.A. in Divinity (1995) and a Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Religion (2002).

Dr. Mourad hosts a podcast called “Ultimate Concerns” in which he explores topics in religion and culture in dialogue with experts in religious studies. Recent episodes explore topics as varied as virtual reality, the nature of heaven and hell, and artificial intelligence.

To find the podcast on iTunes, see here.

Posted in Alumni News on November 16, 2016  
Update from Annie Blazer (PhD, ’09), Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary

My first book was published in summer 2015 with NYU Press in the North American Religions series. The book is entitled Playing for God: Evangelical Women and the Unintended Consequences of Sports Ministry and stems from my dissertation research on female Christian athletes in the U.S.

I am happily teaching at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Last summer, I directed the College’s study abroad program to Cape Town, South Africa. I was just named an inaugural fellow for the W. Taylor Reveley Interdisciplinary Fellows program– an initiative that provides institutional support for the development and implementation of a team-taught cross-disciplinary course. I will be working with my colleague Jaime Settle in the government department to develop a course on religion and American politics.

I am living in Richmond, Virginia with my dog, Cowboy. I have been enjoying hiking, playing bass in a band, and the excellent craft beer scene.


Posted in Alumni News on January 14, 2016  
Benjamin Zeller’s New Book

Zeller BookIn March 1997, thirty-nine people in Rancho Santa Fe, California, ritually terminated their lives. To outsiders, it was a mass suicide. To insiders, it was a graduation. This act was the culmination of over two decades of spiritual and social development for the members of Heaven’s Gate, a religious group focused on transcending humanity and the Earth, and seeking salvation in the literal heavens on board a UFO.

In this fascinating overview, Benjamin Zeller (PhD ’07) not only explores the question of why the members of Heaven’s Gate committed ritual suicides, but interrogates the origin and evolution of the religion, its appeal, and its practices. By tracking the development of the history, social structure, and worldview of Heaven’s Gate, Zeller draws out the ways in which the movement was both a reflection and a microcosm of larger American culture.The group emerged out of engagement with Evangelical Christianity, the New Age movement, science fiction and UFOs, and conspiracy theories, and it evolved in response to the religious quests of baby boomers, new religions of the counterculture, and the narcissistic pessimism of the 1990s. Thus, Heaven’s Gate not only reflects the context of its environment, but also reveals how those forces interacted in the form of a single religious body.

In the only book-length study of Heaven’s Gate, Zeller traces the roots of the movement, examines its beliefs and practices, and tells the captivating story of the people of Heaven’s Gate.

You can find out more at Amazon. Congrats Benjamin!

Posted in Alumni News on January 9, 2015  
Brantley W. Gasaway’s New Book

Gasaway BookBrantley Gasaway (PhD ’08) is an assistant professor of religion at Bucknell University. His new book, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice is a compelling history of progressive evangelicalism. Gasaway examines a dynamic though often overlooked movement within American Christianity today. Gasaway focuses on left-leaning groups, such as Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action, that emerged in the early 1970s, prior to the rise of the more visible Religious Right. He identifies the distinctive “public theology”–a set of biblical interpretations regarding the responsibility of Christians to promote social justice–that has animated progressive evangelicals’ activism and bound together their unusual combination of political positions.

The book analyzes how prominent leaders, including Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo, responded to key political and social issues over the past four decades. Progressive evangelicals combated racial inequalities, endorsed feminism, promoted economic justice, and denounced American nationalism and militarism. At the same time, most leaders opposed abortion and refused to affirm homosexual behavior, even as they defended gay civil rights. Gasaway demonstrates that, while progressive evangelicals have been caught in the crossfire of partisan conflicts and public debates over the role of religion in politics, they have offered a significant alternative to both the Religious Right and the political left.

“I see this as the “go-to” book on this subject. This is not a story of a final victory, but one with a kind of suspense.” –Martin E. Marty, The University of Chicago Divinity School

“A significant contribution to our understanding of progressive evangelicalism … Gasaway’s analysis demonstrates with skill and understanding the vitality and relevance of progressive evangelicalism.” –Randall Balmer, Dartmouth College

For more information and to read an excerpt, visit UNC Press or Amazon.

Congratulations Brantley!

Posted in Alumni News on January 8, 2015  
Annie Blazer’s New Book

Annie Blazer Playing for God BookAnnie Blazer (PhD ’09) is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary. Her new book, Playing for God: Evangelical Women and the Unintended Consequences of Sports Ministry (New York University Press, 2015), offers an exploration of the history and religious lives of Christian athletes, showing that evangelical engagement with popular culture can carry unintended consequences.

When sport became an avenue for embodied worship, it forced a reckoning with evangelical teachings about the body. Female Christian athletes increasingly turned to their own bodies to understand their religious identity, and in so doing, came to question evangelical mainstays on gender and sexuality. What was once a male-dominated masculinist project of sports engagement became a female-dominated movement that challenged evangelical ideas on femininity, marriage hierarchy, and the sinfulness of homosexuality. Though evangelicalism has not changed sporting culture, for those involved in sports ministry, sport has changed evangelicalism.

You can find out more about Playing for God by checking out NYU Press or Amazon.

Congratulations Annie!

Posted in Alumni News on December 10, 2014  
Jeff Wilson’s (PhD ’07) Mindful America Out with OUP

MindfulAmericaDr. Jeff Wilson, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo, has just published his third book Mindful America: The Mutual Influence of Meditation and American Culture through Oxford University Press.

From the OUP website: “Thirty years ago, ‘mindfulness’ was a Buddhist principle mostly obscure to the west. Today, it is a popular cure-all for Americans’ daily problems. A massive and lucrative industry promotes mindfulness in every aspect of life, however mundane or unlikely: Americans of various faiths (or none at all) practice mindful eating, mindful sex, mindful parenting, mindfulness in the office, mindful sports, mindfulness-based stress relief and addiction recovery, and hire mindful divorce lawyers. Mindfulness is touted by members of Congress, CEOs, and Silicon Valley tech gurus, and is even being taught in public schools, hospitals, and the military.

Focusing on such processes as the marketing, medicalization, and professionalization of meditation, Jeff Wilson reveals how Buddhism shed its countercultural image and was assimilated into mainstream American culture. The rise of mindfulness in America, Wilson argues, is a perfect example of how Buddhism enters new cultures and is domesticated: in each case, the new cultures take from Buddhism what they believe will relieve their specific distresses and concerns, and in the process create new forms of Buddhism adapted to their needs. Wilson also tackles the economics of the mindfulness movement, examining commercial programs, therapeutic services, and products such as books, films, CDs, and even smartphone applications.

Mindful America is the first in-depth study of this phenomenon–invaluable for understanding how mindfulness came to be applied to such a vast array of non-religious concerns and how it can be reconciled with traditional Buddhism in America.”

You can find out more about Wilson’s research by checking out this recent guest blog for CNN or listening to this Interfaith Voice interview.

Congratulations Jeff!

Posted in Alumni News on September 18, 2014  
UNC Alumni Curate Religious Images on Facebook

BasketballRosaryRabia Gregory and Shanny Luft, two graduates of the doctoral program in Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, have launched a Facebook venture together. Iconofiles curates religious visual and material culture from history and pop culture – from sacred to profane, and back again. The site provides a wealth of images for both research and teaching. For example, the basketball rosary to the left is just one of many Catholic sports rosaries available online. Is a football rosary the perfect accessory for any given Sunday this fall?

Posted in Alumni News on June 28, 2014  
Keep Us Updated!

We love to hear from our alum. Let us know about your recent adventures and tell us how you’ve put your Religious Studies degree to use.

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Posted in Alumni News on December 13, 2013