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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

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boisi center for religion and american public life

Photo of Mark Massa, S.J.

Letter from the Director

May 2019

Friends:

The Boisi Center was busy this spring with a number of exciting events. Elizabeth Johnson (distinguished professor emerita of theology at Fordham University) delivered the 18th annual “Prophetic Voices” lecture to a capacity crowd on February 28th. Her lecture—entitled, “The Challenge of ‘Us’ in Ecological Times”—offered a compelling overview of her two most recent books (both on the theological import of the current ecological crisis), but also sounded a call for a new kind of religious crusade for believers of all faiths to struggle on behalf of our planet. Her call was greeted with a standing ovation from the audience.

Amey Victoria Adkins-Jones (Boston College) and filmmaker Martin Doblmeier (the award-winning documentary producer) took part in a screening of Doblmeier’s film, Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story. After the screening (which was subsequently shown on PBS stations across the country), Adkins-Jones and Doblmeier offered gripping commentary on the importance of Thurman for the development of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s beliefs about civil rights and racial equality, and Thurman’s long-term influence on seminary students at Boston University’s School of Theology (at which Thurman was a faculty member and King a student). A lively conversation with audience members followed.

Our four “Luncheon Colloquia” this semester drew interested attendees both from within Boston College and from the broader Boston community. Ward Holder and Peter Josephson (both of St. Anselm College) offered intriguing comments on “What Would President Niebuhr Do? Applying Niebuhrian Thought to Contemporary Politics.” Both scholars are past masters on this topic, having produced a number of important studies on the towering Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Elizabeth Antus (Boston College) spoke to a full room on, “‘It was Simply the End of What I Could Bear’: Resetting Christian Theology on Mental Illness and Suicide.” A number of persons present offered deeply moving personal stories on the topic. Natana Delong-Bas (Boston College)—herself one of the most respected theological voices studying Islam in the United States—spoke on “What Everyone Needs to Know About Shariah.” Scholars from within BC and from neighboring universities asked enlightening questions after the presentation. Finally, Nancy Ammerman (Boston University) offered a wonderful reflection on what has become her life’s work: the study of “Lived Religion” in the United States. Ammerman’s talk, entitled “Religion and the Whole Human Experience,” offered compelling insights from an accomplished scholar acclaimed as the most respected voice in this new approach to the study of religion “on the ground.”

Ken Woodward, religion editor for Newsweek magazine for three decades, offered the second annual Wolfe Lecture (named in honor of the Center’s founding director, Alan Wolfe) on March 14th. Woodward offered timely insights on “Religion in the White House” (also the topic of one of his recent books) to an enthusiastic audience.

On April 8th the Boisi Center moved its base from Chestnut Hill to the North Shore of Boston for a very well-attended event, co-sponsored with Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Randall Balmer (Dartmouth College) and John Fea (Messiah College) took part in a spirited conversation with myself on the topic of “Politics and Evangelical Christians.” After the panel conversation, a number of audience members questioned all three panelists.

In addition to our major events, I spoke alongside fellow American religious historian Gardiner Shattuck at an exhibition opening and film screening at the Theology and Ministry Library on February 4th, entitled, “Seeking Shelter: A Story of Faith, Place, and Resistance.” I spoke on the role of Jesuit activist Daniel Berrigan, S.J., and Shattuck spoke about the important role of William Stringfellow (an Episcopal lawyer) in the anti-Vietnam resistance movement, and on the friendship between Berrigan and Stringfellow that grew because of their cooperation in that important movement during the 1960s. Finally, rounding off our busy programs and events, we concluded two faculty seminars and one graduate seminar for the academic year.

We have a superb but lean team here at the Boisi Center, made of up of hard-working and talented folks, so we are sorry to see our wonderful friend and colleague Jack Nuelle, interim assistant to the director at the center, leave us at the end of this academic year. Jack and his wife Nina will be returning to their native city of Chicago, and we will miss Jack quite a bit. I know I speak for all of us in wishing Jack and Nina continued happiness and success in their married life in the City of Broad Shoulders. We’ll also be saying farewell and congratulations to one of our undergraduate research fellows who has been with us for two years, Jorge Mejía, as he graduates from Boston College and heads to work for UBS bank in New York City.

We are delighted that all of you share in our exciting events at the Boisi Center, and we hope to see you next fall as we begin a new academic year examining the always-lively issues focused around religion and American public life.

Mark Massa, S.J.

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