Guy Aiken Returns to UVA Religious Studies as PLT Research Fellow

The Project on Lived Theology (PLT) welcomes Guy Aiken to our team. As a PLT research fellow, Aiken will work with students and assist PLT director Charles Marsh with his UVA undergraduate seminars, among other duties.

“I’m thrilled to be a part of the Project on Lived Theology,” said Aiken. “What could be more exciting for a theologically inclined American religious historian like myself than to study the social consequences of theological ideas?”

Aiken already has a connection to the University of Virginia’s Department of Religious Studies: he earned a PhD in the department in 2017. 

While a graduate student at UVA, Aiken wrote his dissertation on American Quaker humanitarianism in Germany and Appalachia between the world wars. This deep dive into Quaker activism created within him an ongoing interest in nonviolence. He would eventually design and teach a course on American nonviolence and the Civil Rights Movement at Villanova, where he most recently served as an assistant teaching professor and a faculty academic advisor. Before that, he was a postdoctoral fellow in the humanities at Villanova.

Aiken recently published a monograph with Brill on Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly. In addition to publishing articles in The Tocqueville Review, Peace & Change, and Diplomatic History, he is currently finishing a commentary on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” for a new social reading app called Threadable.

In addition to earning a history MA from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a history BA from Queens University of Charlotte, Aiken attended Wake Forest University for theological and ministerial studies. While producing the 2005 play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at Wake Forest, he also taught the cast of fifteen undergraduates about the play’s context.

“Although our previous colleague in this role, Isaac Barnes May, will be a hard act to follow, I know that Guy will bring his own unique perspective and expertise to the Project on Lived Theology, and will be a wonderful asset to our mission,” said PLT director Charles Marsh.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

If One Part Suffers

by Malia Sample (she/her/hers), 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

My past few weeks working with the Project on Lived Theology have been incredible and transformative. The essays and books I have read, the weekly discussions I have had with my project mentor, Dr. Paul Jones, and the conversations I have engaged in with peers, housemates, and friends about what I have been learning have all taught me so much and have altered how I see and understand what it means to live theologically—and what this may look like for me personally in the Christian faith. Hearing the voices, experiences, and perspectives of Black theologians and activists on racial injustice and inequity has expanded and changed how I view the Kingdom of God and what it means to be the body of Christ. 

This week, as I begin book number seven of the eight that I am reading for my research, I am filled with immense gratitude for the opportunity that I have had to learn and listen over these past few weeks. The way I see the divine action of a God who I believe is just and loving—and the way I see my existence and role in that action—has been challenged and changed by the works I have read and the conversations I have had. My time with the Project on Lived Theology has made me question and think more deeply and wholly about what it means to love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind, and to love thy neighbor as thyself amidst racism and racial injustice, which are incongruent with God’s heart and His intention for His creation. A major lens through which I have been trying to look at these questions has been by seeing the church as the body of Christ. 

As a kinesiology major, I love thinking of the church as an anatomical body because through the different organ systems, muscle groups, and modes of communication (electrical, chemical, etc.) of the body, I think the beauty and complexity of what it means to be God’s church can be seen more clearly and in greater depth. This lens has also helped me to visualize what unity in the church really looks like. It has helped me see the importance of difference in unity. Uniformity does not make a body complete. If every cell in the body was the same, the body would not be able to function. The body would not be a body. I think that in many situations, difference—and from that, disagreement—can often be seen as the opponent of unity in the church. However, what if difference and disagreement are not the opposite of unity? What if they are instead what makes being a body possible? M. Shawn Copeland’s novel Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being helped me think about unity in the body of Christ by shifting my mind to the idea, and to the importance, of solidarity. Prior to this summer, I think I sometimes fell into thinking of solidarity as a negotiable “add-on”—or addition—to being the body of Christ. However, I have realized that solidarity is actually central to unity. And not only is it central, but it is also not a choice. 

“Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.”
(1 Corinthians 12:15)

The foot does not get to choose whether or not it is part of the same body as the hand. Even if the foot does not want to be related to the hand, it is; it cannot stop being part of the body. Solidarity has been chosen for the foot and the hand. They are unified by genes that they cannot change. Therefore, solidarity is not a choice. What is a choice, however, is how will this unified body respond to difference? To disagreement? To the suffering of a part of the body that results from difference?

“If one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)

When the foot does not recognize the suffering of the hand, the body still suffers. And it is not just the hand that suffers; the body is not able to heal, and the sickness spreads. The pain in a part of the body is the whole body’s pain. The body is already connected. The suffering is already shared, whether or not we realize it. Therefore, the body must decide whether or not to recognize that any suffering is shared suffering and that any suffering in the body affects the entire body. The body must decide to choose life and solidarity. There is no other option for Christ’s body. Mutual growth, mutual freedom, and mutual healing are the only options.

Read Malia’s first blog post here.

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

Telling Stories, Revealing Truth

by Maddie Pannell, 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

Last week, I was puzzling over a couple of photos I wanted to post on Instagram. Was this an authentic reflection of myself? Was I trying too hard? I was encouraged by one of the Someday is Here (SIH) podcast episodes I listened to as part of my research for the Project on Lived Theology. SIH podcast host Vivian Mabuni interviewed photographer and author Laura Izumikawa on Episode 25. Izumikawa, describing the principles that drive her work and leadership, said, “What really lasts and is evergreen is genuineness, openness, vulnerability, and being the best you can be, and I’ve found that people are oddly attracted to that and want more of that.”

As I’ve listened to the SIH podcast over the past two months, the many different women that Mabuni interviewed presented their own “evergreen,” authentic selves. They talked freely about their identities, passions, families, and dreams—“storytelling,” as many of them called it. This kind of storytelling is distinct from other kinds of narrative. These “stories” are not fictive nor do they exist independently of their author. Rather, the storytellers are embodied in their stories. Stories conventionally put up a facade, create a sense of something unreal and fantastic. These stories, though, are tellings of who they are at their very gritty, uncovered, and unfiltered core; they tell the path from whence the teller came and the obscure yet hopeful road ahead. They simultaneously deconstruct and construct: tearing down image and pretense while building wholeness and truth in identity. 

That does not mean these stories are themselves truth. I hesitate to use “truth-teller” as a synonym for “storyteller,” though I heard several women use that term during their interviews with Mabuni. The stories, though grounded in real personal experience, are inherently subjective and circumstantial; truth is decidedly objective and transcends circumstance. In this regard, I agree with many theologians’ critiques of the relativism of the narrative theological approach.

As we engage in theological considerations of truth, particularly in lived theology, we miss something significant if we disregard storytelling, specifically the practice of telling our own stories, the stories of our identities and personhood. In this sense, storytelling is a description and explanation of identity; identity is how we locate and articulate our presence. Presence is us, ourselves, our unique, worthy, and valuable expression of God’s image in the world. As such, presence is essential to knowing, experiencing, and communing with God. 

Each of us cannot help but experience the world relatively. It is through the act of telling our stories that we realize ours is not the singular story or perspective, not the singular truth. In this way, storytelling can actually combat relativism and contribute to the revelation of truth by facilitating connection. The existence of commonalities alongside differences illuminates objective realities. In this space, the first, most fundamental truth illuminated is presence because regardless of any circumstance, we all hold value as God’s image bearers. Our presence is worthy.

Read Maddie’s first blog post here.

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

Snippets of Conversation as Poetry

by Siana Monet, 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

As my research project about Quakerism and the pandemic has reached its halfway point, I’ve been excited to see how it’s taken off. Much of my interviewing so far has been anchored by Tanya Luhrmann’s anthropological approach, specifically When God Talks Back and How God Becomes Real. Her guidance about participant observation and deep listening has been instrumental to my approach in Blacksburg’s Quaker meetings. It has also been helpful while conducting interviews about what Quaker faith has meant to each person, especially in light of the pandemic.

I’ve been writing a collection of poetry inspired by the conversations and experiences that I’ve been having. So far, the most surprising aspect of this work has been the direction in which the poems have been going. Despite taking detailed notes about people’s lives and the history of their involvement with the Blacksburg Quaker meeting, what I have latched on to intellectually and artistically has been the little snippets of conversation that have situated my growing body of work. One woman’s passion for butterflies and gardening, a friend’s sickness, an ongoing construction project have all anchored the poems that I’ve been writing. While I chose to focus more on these anonymous snippets early on in order to protect participant confidentiality, I’ve been surprised at the degree to which this approach has also served as a stylistic and literary device.

At this point, the collection of poems has also been taking shape. Though I’ve written poems my whole life, I’ve never focused on cultivating a group of poems around a certain idea, theme, topic, or experience. This collection has morphed into––and been inspired by––a practice of lived theology. Far outside of individual conversations and poems, I’ve been amazed at the recentering that is taking  place in my life long after the meeting has ended. It’s in living into the faith of this Friends meeting that a greater and more genuine understanding of Quakerism has taken root, and is reflected not only in my poetry but also in how I move through the world.

Read Siana’s first blog post here.

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

PLT Seeks Undergraduate Research Fellow

Project on Lived Theology Logo

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world. We are seeking a work-study student for a variety of tasks, including general office organization, website postings, archival organization, video and audio content processing, and other tasks as they arise. Hours are flexible.

Preferred Experience & Qualifications:

  • Ability to perform many different tasks.    
  • Strong organizational skills.
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills.
  • Attention to detail.
  • Website experience.
  • Proficiency in Microsoft Office Suite.
  • Video and audio content processing


To apply, please send a resume and cover letter to Jessica Seibert, Operations Manager:

The Power of Peaceful Protest: Navigating from a Christian Perspective

by Josh Heman-Ackah, 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

For my research project, it has been quite fascinating to learn more about the history of locations in my proximity. I have recently studied events from the Civil Rights Movement that occurred in Prince Edward County and Charlottesville, Virginia. Reading the historical memoir Something Has to Be Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green, I obtained a lot of disheartening knowledge about the legacy of a county that I drive through regularly. When the Brown v. Board of Education decision ruled that all public schools must desegregate, Prince Edward County resisted; rather than integrate, they chose to shut down all public schools. Afterwards, county residents opened Prince Edward Academy, a private school for white students only, while Black students were stuck without any public school education for five years. Many of those Black students, known as “The Lost Generation,” would never receive their high school diplomas, and it wasn’t even their fault. My team plans to interview the author Kristen Green, inquiring into her perspective as the grandchild of those who opened the segregationist school and her journey to actively fighting for civil rights.

For Charlottesville, Virginia, it was saddening to learn more of the resistance against integration that took place around the university I attended, yet inspiring to learn about the actions people took to fight for liberties. For instance, the since-closed University Theatre, located in the UVA campus district known as “The Corner,” practiced full exclusion of any colored people, from its opening in 1938 until the early 1960s. Student protests ensued, which led to lots of hotel, theater, and restaurant owners calling movement leaders, telling them not to come down to Charlottesville, and claiming that their establishments were now integrated. Yet, the University Theatre stayed segregated until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation in public areas. Moreover, in the UVA academic year 1968-69, there was a momentous student movement of protests, picketing, and a march with more than 1,000 people on the UVA Rotunda. The protestors marched for four main changes: an assistant dean to recruit Black students, the active recruitment of Black faculty, a Black studies program, and a higher living wage for staff. The same year, these changes were implemented as new UVA policies and are credited to the protests of students and coverage by The Cavalier Daily student newspaper. The power of nonviolent protests throughout the movement cannot be overstated, and it inspires me that its power can be seen on a small or large scale, whether at a university or in federal law. 

Following these discoveries, I am left contemplating the power of protests and their application from a Christian perspective. Should Christians engage in protests, either politically or within the church? If so, how does a Christian protest look similar to or different from the nonviolent protests in the Civil Rights Movement? I believe Christians certainly can protest, but there is a proper manner for this to be done. Perhaps this begins with prayer, fasting, and petitioning up to God first, asking the deity to drive change. Then, perhaps a Christian’s protest shares many of the ideals of the movement, like humility, nonviolence, adherence to the law, compassion for those oppressed, and other morals. I have a lot of learning to do in regard to protesting in a way that glorifies God. Certainly, no church is made of perfect people, and I wish to learn how to protest the wrong that I see within a church, yet in a way that still glorifies the house of God and does not detract people from finding their salvation. So much of the success of the protests in the Civil Rights Movement came from the public seeing in news reports the retaliation, violence, and chaos formed in response to nonviolent protests that exposed a problem in the racialized systems. I wonder how similar protests best work in an orderly, glorifying fashion in the church. While in many cases, religion inspired protests in the Civil Rights Movement, today, in my case, the movement inspired my protest against the harmful application of religion. Any problems within one’s church—along with political or social problems—are worth gracefully addressing and working to fix if you truly care about God and/or his people.

Read Josh’s first blog post here.

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

Making Progress Through Meeting Minutes and Meeting People

by Sophie Gibson, 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

I started the summer reading about the Reverend Ted Evans’ leadership and impact on St. Paul’s Memorial Church from 1947 to 1961, for my fellowship research project. Some highlights from my reading list were A History of Saint Paul’s Memorial Church, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1910-1990 by Rev. Paula Swaebe Kettlewell; The Desegregated Heart by Sarah Patton Boyle; and The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness by Jennifer M. McBride. These readings, among others, gave me a range of historical and theological perspectives to ground my investigation in the context of other scholarship. 

I then turned my inquiry to written archival material (newsletters, photos, leaflets, and vestry meeting minutes) at St. Paul’s Memorial Church. I started with vestry minutes from 1946 (one year before the Reverend Ted Evans started as rector of St. Paul’s) and have progressed through 1962’s meetings (a year after Evans left). In those minutes, I found humorous descriptions of discussions from 1948 that could have happened in 2021, particularly around the infamous limited parking near St. Paul’s on Sunday mornings. I also found references to the concerns of the Civil Rights Movement as it unfolded throughout the 1950s. For example, at a meeting on December 19, 1955, “Dr. Lewis opened discussion of the controversial Integration–Segregation issue. In the course of the discussion, several of those present expressed their convictions rather earnestly, though no resolutions or motions were proposed or enacted on any phase of the discussion.”

This dialogue exemplifies a continuing source of questions and frustration in my research: the lack of specificity in written materials. I have turned to interviews with congregants who attended St. Paul’s during the 1950s and the following decades. I have made so many exciting connections and met so many people within my congregation in the process of identifying interviewees and discovering the joy of oral narrative. The interviews I have done so far have taught me so much about the lasting impact of Ted Evans’ leadership—each anecdote sharpens the image of St. Paul’s parish life since 1947.

There is one particular piece of my research that really shone through in the context of a fellowship in lived theology. In 1961, the same year that Evans left his post, Senior Warden George Cooper, Jr. called on the congregation to live more deeply into the call of “Christian service” by invoking Matthew 25:40: “Christ said, ‘In as much as ye have done it unto the least of these,’ not ‘In as much as ye have thought about doing it, or talked about doing it.’” The push to live more deeply into one’s theology is a timeless call at St. Paul’s. I can’t wait to learn more about how Ted Evans’ rectorship challenged the congregation to extend love and community to all. 

Read Sophie’s first blog post here.

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

It’s Complicated: Faith Organizations, Activism, and Justice

by Karen Cortez, 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

I have thoroughly been enjoying the time I have been reading, writing, and thinking throughout this fellowship. It’s hard to believe the summer is more than halfway over and that I’ll be back in Charlottesville in less than a month!

Since my project is mainly focused on Protestant and Evangelical organizations aiming to alleviate poverty, I have been reading a lot. Books like The Kingdom of God Knows No Borders by Mellani McAllister, Brown Church by Robert Chao Romero, and American Prophets by Jack Jenkins have all made my list. 

As I’ve read more and discussed more with my research advisor, Isaac Barnes May, I have come to the conclusion that things are complicated. There are many times during our meetings when words can be hard to find, whether because of frustration over an unsettling statistic I find, or when empathy is absent, or when I see that no conversations exist that try to bridge any gaps of misunderstanding.

Even though things concerning religion can be complex, it is something that is truly lived, and it is so much deeper than what it seems to be on the surface. I could read a theology of what comprises Evangelical attitudes about the involvement of Scripture in bolstering social gospel initiatives, and you can get a million different answers as to what one’s own individual beliefs are on these topics, no matter where they fall on the theological and political spectrums.

And so what do I do in the midst of all these voices that exist within the one faith community that I find myself a part of? I try to find my footing as best as I can, knowing that I can still go forward and use what I believe for good. I think that sometimes I may know a lot about this church because I have spent most of my life in these settings, but the expanse of all the things I have yet to learn continues to grow bigger and bigger. In the midst of learning the many philosophies and ideologies that encompass Evangelicalism and Protestantism, I found a lot of joy learning more about liberation theology and the social gospel, and a plethora of activists choosing to bring faith-related activism and justice to greater fruition. I was reading Faith-Rooted Organizing by Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel a few weeks back, and I kept becoming amazed over how many organizations had been formed, and feeling inspired by the fact that there are groups upon groups that have been formed, inspired, and maintained throughout the years in order to fight for social justice and poverty relief.

In the next few weeks, as I begin my writing process, I am excited for all that I have yet to learn and explore about my topic, and to learn more about how these theologies are lived out.

Read Karen’s first blog post here.

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

Lived Theology and the BLM Movement: Transcending Boundaries Through Film

by Annie Webber, 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

Growing up, the only time I saw religion was in church. What I did not realize was that religion did in fact have a place in my life outside of church, but I did not know how to see or find it. Then I took my first religion class, which transformed my view of the world and how I saw religion in it. My professor taught us about lived religion through the eyes of Robert Orsi’s Thank You, St. Jude and about the worship of idols, such as Selena Quintanilla after her death. This opened my eyes to the fact that religion is everywhere, and sparked my interest in how lived theology impacts people’s lives today and how to search for the sacred in the profane. In this modern world where technology pervades our society, especially during the time of COVID-19, it can be hard to see how lived religion functions online. But during this time, I have seen how people have come together, online and in person, in the name of social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. Though the Civil Rights Movement had an obvious attachment to lived religion through the beloved Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hammer, and many others, I think it is important to look at lived religion in today’s social movements, especially in a world where technology seems to saturate everything and where young people seem to push religion aside. 

I am researching how lived theology has played a role in the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests from last summer, specifically in Charlottesville. The end goal of this project is to create a short film, which will make the topic of lived theology in the BLM movement accessible to all, in a way that is understandable to a wide audience. I have always enjoyed telling stories through art; photography and film are ways to create visual testimonies that can be powerful and generative. The medium of film can transcend the boundaries of written work and allow an easier understanding of concepts through a visual form. 

I am originally from Charlottesville, which is where I will be conducting my research and interviews this summer. I have enjoyed reading about lived theology, the Black Lives Matter movement, and filmmaking. Looking forward to the next couple of weeks, I am excited to start conducting interviews and putting together a film.

Learn more about the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.