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Knox Expands Religious Studies, Welcomes New Professor

James Thrall and classKnox College's own religious history -- long, complex, and sometimes contentious -- is not the reason to expand the study of religion in the Knox curriculum. "Religious studies belongs at Knox not because it's part of our history, but because the liberal arts and Knox both have a historic mission of building tolerance in a world of religious diversity," said Lance Factor, George Appleton Lawrence Professor of Philosophy and co-chair of the religious studies program with Penny Gold, professor of history.

The program enters a new phase this year, with the appointment of Assistant Professor James Thrall to a new faculty position -- the Knight Distinguished Chair for the Study of Religion and Culture. Thrall is the first full-time faculty member specifically in the field of religious studies since the retirement in 1983 of William Matthews, who taught religion and served for 30 years as college chaplain.

"I've been impressed with the students' level of engagement," Thrall said, after teaching Global Christianity in the fall. "We had a wide range of perspectives and levels of religious identification, which led to lively discussions."

Following Matthews's retirement in 1983, the College received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that enabled faculty to develop new courses in religious studies by building on their existing interests and academic expertise. "Faculty developed courses in both Eastern and Western religions, but it didn't give us a lot, compared to our peer institutions," Gold said.

Gold, a scholar of medieval Christianity, created a course, Western Religious Traditions, which later grew into Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Perennially one of the program's most popular offerings, it is now taught by Thrall, who is currently teaching Religion and Film and plans to offer Religion and Popular Culture, as well as Freud, Jung, and Religion, in the spring.

"Knox has fielded a good number of religion courses without the benefit of a faculty member dedicated specifically to religious studies," Thrall said. "It demonstrated the importance of religion in many areas of academic inquiry. At the same time, it reflected what individual faculty members happened to be interested in and happened to be willing to teach. The new initiative will help us be more systematic in covering the key areas of religious studies."

Prior to coming to Knox, Thrall taught religion at Bridgeport University in Connecticut. A graduate of Colby College, he earned a master's degree in religion at the Yale University Divinity School and a doctorate in religion and culture at Duke University. Thrall also has worked as a religion reporter for the New Haven Register and headed the communications office for the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut.

The Knight Distinguished Chair for the Study of Religion and Culture is endowed by a gift that was originally proposed as an incremental gift over a period of years. "Making the gift now gives me the pleasure and honor of helping Knox to establish a fullfledged religion and culture program during my lifetime," said a statement from the donor.

Since starting at Knox in September, Thrall has met with nearly two dozen faculty to discuss future directions for the religious program. "We will build on the foundation of courses that have been offered in the past to help students appreciate the tremendous diversity of religious expressions they may encounter, no matter what career paths they may choose," he said. "Liberal arts colleges like Knox may be uniquely positioned to model the kind of respectful dialogue and debate around questions of religion that could help shape discourse in wider public contexts."