Knight Distinguished Assistant Professor for the Study of Religion & Culture
At Knox Since: 2010
The religious studies program at Knox entered a new phase in 2011
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 the late Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion William F. Matthews, who also served for 30 years as college chaplain.
As a member of a U.S. Foreign Service family, Assistant Professor James Thrall's experience growing up in Japan, Burma, Korea, and the Philippines -- and his work as a religion journalist in his adult life -- had a big impact on his interest in world religions.
Those experiences also instilled his strong respect for the power of religious commitment to influence all areas of life.
"The endless inventiveness of human beings in developing systems of religious meaning, often in ways they would never think to call religious, constantly surprises me," Thrall said. "I delight in sharing that sense of surprise with students."
Since joining Knox in September 2010, Thrall has met with nearly two dozen faculty to discuss the future direction for the College's religious studies program. Following the retirement in 1983 of the late Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion William F. Matthews, the College received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that enabled faculty to develop new courses in religious studies by expanding on their existing interests and academic expertise.
Western Religious Traditions, a course created by Professor of History Penny Gold, later grew into Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Perennially one of the program's most popular offerings, it is now taught by Thrall, who also is teaching Religion and Film and Global Christianity and plans to offer Religion and Popular Culture, as well as Freud, Jung, and Religion.
"I've been impressed with the students' level of engagement," Thrall said, after teaching Global Christianity. "We had a wide range of perspectives and levels of religious identification, which led to lively discussions."
The religious studies program will continue building on the foundation of courses that have been offered in the past to help students appreciate the diversity of religious expressions they may encounter -- no matter what career paths they may choose, Thrall 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," he added.
Prior to Knox, Thrall taught religion at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. A graduate of Colby College, he earned a master's degree in theology at the Yale University Divinity School and a doctorate in religion and culture at Duke University. Thrall worked as a newspaper reporter in Maine and Connecticut, including covering religion for the New Haven Register. He headed the communications office for the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, and served as deputy director of news and information for the national Episcopal Church.
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 full-fledged religion and culture program during my lifetime," said a statement from the donor.