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Knight Distinguished Professor for the Study of Religion & Culture; Co-Chair of Peace and Justice
2 East South Street
Galesburg, IL 61401-4999
Knight Distinguished Professor for the Study of Religion & Culture
"My interest in religion stems in large part from having grown up in Japan, Burma, Korea, and the Philippines as a member of a U.S. Foreign Service family. We were surrounded by a seemingly infinite variety of religious expression that shaped and flavored the cultures in which we lived. I also spent much of my adult life writing about religion as a journalist for newspapers in Maine and Connecticut, and as a media coordinator for the Episcopal Church. These experiences instilled a strong respect for the powerful influence religious commitment can exert on essentially 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. I delight in sharing that sense of surprise with students.
I study religion primarily as a social phenomenon, especially as communicated through cultural products of literature, film, and other media. I am particularly interested in the speculative potential of science fiction in exploring religious meaning. My other current research interests include religious themes in Japanese film, twentieth-century feminist explorations of mysticism, world Christianity (with an emphasis on Burma), and peace studies."
Years at Knox: 2010 to present
Ph.D., Religion and Culture, 2005, Duke University.
M.A.R., Theology, 1986, Yale University Divinity School.
B.A., English, 1978, Colby College.
Religion and science fiction, religion and film, religion and media, religion and popular culture, theories of religion, world religions
Full Curriculum Vitae - (PDF)
“Building on the Vision: Mormon “Humanism” in Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009).” SFRA Review 51:3 (Summer 2021): 176-183.
Mystic Moderns: Agency and Enchantment in Evelyn Underhill, May Sinclair, and Mary Webb. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books (Rowman & Littlefield), 2020.
"Shifting Histories, Blurred Borders, and Mediated Sacred Texts in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle." Literature and Theology 32:2 (1 June 2018): 211-225.
"The Authority of Sacred Texts in Science Fiction," The Routledge Companion to Literature and Religion. Ed. Mark Knight. New York/London: Routledge, 2016.
"What the Frak, Frankenstein!: Teenagers, Gods, and Postcolonial Monsters on Caprica." Extrapolation 56.2 (Summer 2015): 169-193.
"Authoring the Sacred: Humanism and Invented Scripture in Octavia Butler, Kurt Vonnegut, and Dan Simmons," Implicit Religion: Journal of the Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion and Contemporary Spirituality (CSIRCS), 17, (December 2014): 491-513.
"Making Dinner: The Artistry of Communal Meals in Babette's Feast and Antonia's Line," Light Shining in a Dark Place: Discovering Theology Through Film. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012.
"Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn: The Taoist Way in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Telling." In Practicing Science Fiction: Critical Essays on Writing, Reading and Teaching the Genre, edited by Karen Hellekson, Craig Jacobsen, Patrick Sharp, and Lisa Yaszek. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010.
“Postcolonial Science Fiction?: Science, Religion and the Transformation of Genre in Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome.” Literature and Theology 23.3 (September 2009): 1-14.
“The Religions of Battlestar Galactica: Making Human/Making Other.” When Genres Collide: Selected Essays from the 37th Annual Meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association. Ed. Thomas J. Morrissey and Oscar De Los Santos. Waterbury, CT: Fine Tooth Press, 2007.
“Immersing the Chela: Religion and Empire in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.” Religion and Literature 36.3 (Autumn 2004): 45-66.
“Love, Loss, and Utopian Community on William Gibson’s Bridge.” Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 33.91 (Summer 2004): 97-115
“Agency and the Modern Mysticism of May Sinclair.” Virtual Networking May Sinclair Conference, Université de Nantes, France (June 2021).
“Lifted Children and Artificial Friends: Religion and Inequality in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun.” Virtual Science Fiction Research Association Conference, Seneca College, Toronto (June 2021).
Invited talk on “Life, Death and the Bourgeoisie in Evelyn Underhill’s The Grey World and The Column of Dust.” Virtual Celebration of Evelyn Underhill sponsored by Chelmsford Diocesan House of Retreat at Pleshey, Evelyn Underhill Association USA, and Hampstead Parish Church (June 2021).
“Truth, Lies, and Colonization in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.” Science Fiction Research Association, Chaminade University, Honolulu, Hawai’i (June 2019).
“Song of the Other: Kon Ichikawa’s Biruma no Tategoto (The Burmese Harp).” International Conference on Religion and Film, Halifax, Nova Scotia (June 2019).
“Modern Mythology and the Tricky Gods of Neil Gaiman.” International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture. Uppsala, Sweden (September 2018).
"Mediated Borders and Sacred Texts in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle." International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture. Glasgow, Scotland, September 2016.
"Histories, Publics, and Mediated Sacred Texts in The Man in the High Castle." International Society for Media, Religion and Culture. Seoul, South Korea, August 2016.
"Memory, Loss, and Return in Kore-eda Hirokazu's Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo)," International Society of Religion, Literature, and Culture, Copenhagen, Denmark, October 2012.
"Teaching Peace: Hiroshima's Mary McMillan," American Academy of Religion Midwest Region, Augustana College, April 2011.
"Women, Spirits, and Postcolonial Speculation in Nalo Hopkinson's The Salt Roads," Eaton Science Fiction Conference, Univ. of California-Riverside, February 2011.
Religion and Popular Culture Unit Steering Committee, American Academy of Religion (2016-2021)
Religion and Media Workshop Steering Committee, American Academy of Religion (2010-2020)
Student Paper Award Committee, Science Fiction Research Association (2010-2013); Chair (2012-2013).
Arts, Literature, and Religion Unit Steering Committee, American Academy of Religion, (2006-2012).
Campus & Community Involvement
What Students Say
"Jim is a dedicated and sincere professor. His acumen for scholarship, past professional experience, and time living abroad give him multifaceted insight into the topics he is teaching. He is respectful, engaging, and challenging. Jim assigns literature from diverse disciplines and genres and fosters freethinking discussion during class sessions. He does a great job of steering course content towards his students' particular interests; you really have intellectual freedom in his classes."
-Matt Flesher, Creative Writing Major and Religious Studies Minor
"Professor Thrall is passionate about teaching--and learning. His own curiosity about world religions inspires students in his classroom to engage in thoughtful discussions and in-depth searches on the nature of spirituality. Through field trips, group projects, and the pairing of contemporary reading with ancient texts, Professor Thrall encourages intellectual curiosity. Educational innovation and human compassion take center stage in his classes. They are some of the best I've taken at Knox."
-Kaitlyn Duling, Creative Writing Major and Religious Studies Minor
"Every voice is valued in Jim's classes. He consistently cultivates an environment of honesty and respect without any explicit instruction. His warmth and incredible ability to listen are enough to inspire his students to honor the diverse perspectives of all- in and out of the classroom."
-Evelyn Langley, Religion and Culture Major