PLT Has a New Officemate! Meet Religion Scholar and Author Brook Wilensky-Lanford

The Project on Lived Theology is happy to be sharing our office space in the University of Virginia’s Gibson Hall with Brook Wilensky-Lanford

As a postdoctoral research associate in UVA’s Department of Religious Studies, Wilensky-Lanford will work with Kathleen Flake, who serves as the Richard Lyman Bushman Professor of Mormon Studies. Wilensky-Lanford will also manage conferences, events, and media projects for the Virginia Center for the Study of Religion. The Center, which is housed in the religious studies department, aims to “help people think better about religion.”

“This position brings together my academic background as a scholar of American religious history and literature, and my previous career as a journalist, editor, and writing teacher,” said Wilensky-Lanford. 

Intrigued by utopias, origin stories, religious liberalism, and spirituality, Wilensky-Lanford wrote the book Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011). She earned her PhD in American Religion from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2021. Her dissertation, “‘Keep the Pearly Gates Ajar for Me’: The Racial Politics of Heaven, 1868-1909,” traces the literary history and racial politics of the “accessible heaven” between the Civil War and World War I. This past August, she appeared on The Classical Ideas Podcast to discuss her academic work on historical narratives of heaven and heavenly access. 

In addition to serving as the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Killing the Buddha from 2011 to 2018, Wilensky-Lanford’s writing has appeared in the New Republic, the Guardian, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New Yorker books blog, among other outlets

Wilensky-Lanford earned an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University and a BA from Wesleyan University in Theater and Religion. She has taught creative and academic writing at the City University of New York and elsewhere. According to Wilensky-Lanford, she “love[s] helping people tell stories about how religion works in the world, in all its strangeness and complexity.” 

Follow Brook Wilensky-Lanford on Twitter at @modmyth.

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.

During UVA Seminar, Scholar Eugene McCarraher Asks Why “Very Serious People” Like Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr So Much

2008 SILT - Eugene Mccarraher

Public figures across the political spectrum, from President Barack Obama to conservative commentator David Brooks, have cited theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his philosophies as major influences on their worldviews.

During a Sept. 15 seminar with University of Virginia undergraduates, Eugene McCarraher, professor of humanities and history at Villanova University, asked, “Why do ‘very serious people’ like Reinhold Niebuhr so much?” McCarraher ultimately concluded that Niebuhr’s philosophy of political realism cannot provide us with what we need for our time.

Video of McCarraher’s talk, “Wisdom to Know the Difference: Why Reinhold Niebuhr Isn’t the Theologian We Need Today,” is now available on the Project on Lived Theology’s website here.

During his lecture over Zoom, McCarraher explained how Niebuhr’s version of the Serenity Prayer illustrates both philosophical strengths and limitations: the serenity that the prayer counsels, while inspiring to many people, can too easily turn into complacency and resignation, while the courage that the prayer espouses is too narrow a concept. 

“As with so many of Niebuhr’s pronouncements, we’re all expected to stroke our chins and furrow our brows at its stringent gravitas,” said McCarraher. “Yet I think this prayer also includes everything I consider to be anemic and debilitating about Niebuhr’s political theology.”

According to McCarraher, Niebuhr was a radical firebrand as a young evangelical minister and had criticized postwar liberalism “as a philosophy of the middle-aged.”

In his 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr advocated for the philosophy of political realism. He argued that the concept of American exceptionalism and the perceived connection between material success and divine favor are the most fatal delusions of all. As a result, our democracy might be short-lived unless we face the issues of social injustice, economic immobility, and imperialism. Niebuhr stated that the beloved community will have to wait until the end of history and that politics could serve as a means of damage control until then. Niebuhr called on American leaders to practice humility, circumspection, self-restraint, and realism in the meantime.

Despite this appeal to leaders, Niebuhr would go on to support World War II, anti-communism, and the development of nuclear weapons but would oppose the Vietnam War. McCarraher, during his lecture, contended that Niebuhr’s inability to go a step further and openly call for America’s withdrawal from Vietnam was actually a capitulation to realism as well as a lack of imagination about how society could be restructured. Cold War elites could in this way invoke Niebuhr in order to maintain public lawfulness via imperialism and militarism, especially when connected to national identity.

And so, according to McCarraher, public theologians and intellectuals must reclaim the language of political realism because Niebuhrian realism is not realistic or visionary enough. 

During the subsequent question-and-answer session, McCarraher and the students discussed the role of guilt in pacifist politics, the political consequences of the original sin doctrine, the role of human finitude and fallibility in Christian realism, and Niebuhr’s influence on Martin Luther King, Jr., and theologians today.

McCarraher’s talk was part of “Theologies of Resistance and Reconciliation: Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr, King,” a UVA undergraduate seminar taught by Guy Aiken, Project on Lived Theology research fellow, and Charles Marsh, PLT director and UVA religious studies professor. 

A professor at Villanova since 2000, Eugene McCarraher’s research has focused on social thought, capitalism, and religion in the United States. He has received fellowships from the Lilly Endowment, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies. In addition to his scholarly work, McCarraher has published reviews and essays in CommonwealDissent, the Baffler, the Nation, the Hedgehog Review, and Raritan. His two books are Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought (Cornell University Press, 2000) and The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019). 

In addition to speaking at various PLT events, McCarraher has participated in PLT’s 2008 Spring Institute for Lived Theology and 2002 Lived Theology and Power Workgroup.

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.

To Do What Is Right

by Malia Sample, 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

As my time as a fellow with the Project on Lived Theology comes to a close, I feel immense sadness for the end of such an amazing experience, but I am also filled with immense gratitude for this fellowship and for all that it has given and taught me. It is weird to think of this as an “end” because I believe one of the biggest things I have learned during my research this summer on Black theology and the intersection of faith and racial injustice is just how far from the “end” of researching, of learning, and of growing I am. I am leaving this summer with more knowledge and understanding, but I am also leaving this summer with more of a knowledge and understanding of how much I still have to learn. My time with the Project on Lived Theology, however, has given me the tools, impulse, humility, and courage to continue to learn about what it means to think and live theologically amidst and against racial injustice and racism. And now, as I write my final blog post for this fellowship, I am reminded of and brought back to a quote from the first book that I read this summer for my research: 

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

This quote, from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” has stuck with me throughout this summer and is something that is compelling me forward toward continuing to learn about and to fight for racial justice. The image of the white moderate MLK references feels more familiar than I would like it to. As a member of the predominantly white American church, some of the descriptions of the white moderate sound like things I have heard from pulpits and in conversations. We can re-label our silence and complacency with racism and injustice as prioritizing “peace” and “unity,” but true Biblical peace and unity cannot coexist with injustice. I believe we live in a broken world, a world affected and infected by sin. The evil of racial injustice invades our American society in such a way that goes down to the roots and continues systemically in our present moment.  

Because of racial injustice’s deeply engrained and all-affecting nature, living justly and fighting for justice will not be attained passively by those who do not suffer as a result of the injustice. Pursuing justice must be actively chosen by those who are members of the society that perpetuates it. When it comes to injustice, we are never neutral. To quote Bishop Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” As a non-Black member of the predominantly white American church, I am in an inherent place of privilege when it comes to the racial injustice against Black Americans that infects my country and its church. It is not up to me to decide what is just or unjust. But it is up to me to choose to listen, to learn, and to fight with my Black brothers and sisters for justice and for true peace and unity. A few paragraphs later in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King says:

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do what is right.

Right now, as racial injustice continues to pervade and ravage our country, the time is ripe to do what is right. But this must be chosen because “it never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” And this must be an ongoing process because “it comes through the tireless efforts of men.” And this must be fought for by men and women who are willing to be coworkers with the divine action and plans of a just and loving God.

Read Malia’s first and second blog posts here and 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.

The Virginia Civil Rights Digital Exhibit: Reflections on a Transformative Experience

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

Throughout the last couple of months, I have endeavored to create a digital exhibit of the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia. Our group of research fellows successfully created around fifteen contributions to the Project on Lived Theology website; they took on various media forms, such as historical summaries, interviews with authors, audio clips from court cases, and newspapers from the time period. While a significant amount of work was accomplished, there is still opportunity for another group to pick up where we left off. For instance, although we included a webpage partially dedicated to The Cavalier Daily’s involvement in the movement, it became increasingly clear that not all of the UVA student newspaper’s contributions could be listed. Perhaps the next group can write more about the Cavalier Daily’s accomplishments, such as pressuring UVA community members to leave the segregated Farmington Country Club in the 1960s or assisting the student council in adding more black faculty and students to the university. For every Roy Wilkins (executive director of the NAACP) we wrote about, there was a Henry Marsh (the first African American mayor of Richmond, Virginia) that we did not have time to write about. Additionally, the more you know, the more you realize you do not yet know. I am sure the next group will find fascinating topics that interest them and that over time, this digital showcase can give a more comprehensive history of the movement in Virginia.

Over the research fellowship, I grew infinitely in my appreciation for history, especially American history. Despite my previous doubts, I learned that everyday citizens can make extraordinary political change that affects countless people. For instance, many people know that the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine and forced the desegregation of public schools, but not many people know the case’s origin. Barbara Rose Johns was a 16-year-old junior at Morton High School in Farmville, Virginia, and she single-handedly organized a group of protestors, the “Manhattan Project,” in her school. Their student walkout gained the attention of the NAACP, which brought the school’s racial dilemmas to court. Four other similar stories, sparked by four other individuals dealing with segregated schools, were brought collectively to the U.S. Supreme Court under the name of Minister Oliver Brown. Because of such individuals raising their voices across the country, I grew up with the right to attend desegregated public schools with superior education and resources. Indeed, the actions of everyday citizens, including myself, can accumulate into tremendous change, locally and nationally. 

I have written in previous blog posts about my frustration at the lack of specificity in the written archives. What had been a frustration is now an invitation to learn more through relationships. Each week, I get a new lead on a potential interviewee or resource from a congregant at St. Paul’s. These leads help me to match existing pieces as well as discover new pieces of the puzzle. So many congregants have offered their encouragement and involvement over the course of this research adventure; I so appreciate that support. 

Finally, with regard to lived theology, there were abundant instances of various religions and spiritualities playing huge roles in the movement—from the Negro spiritual songs that lifted morale and fueled perseverance to scriptures that laid the moral foundation for organizations like SNCC or the NAACP. A memorable example of this is how Congressman John Lewis started off his life preaching to the chickens on his farm. From this early expression of his Christianity, he fell in love with the “social gospel,” which inspired his advancement of civil rights. Both Black and white clergy certainly also had their roles in influencing the communities’ responses, sometimes working in favor of desegregation and sometimes in favor of keeping segregation. While there will always be diversity of opinions and beliefs, one thing is certain: there is more work to be done in our country. I am honored to have completed this research fellowship, and I will use what I have learned to be a part of positive change while keeping an eye out for how religion and spirituality intersect with the secular world.

Read Josh’s first and second blog posts here and 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.

Presence and Identity: Asianness and Personhood

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

As I spent many hours listening to the Someday is Here (SIH) podcast, the concept of identity came up over and over again; the purpose of the podcast is to explore and celebrate AAPI identity, and most of the stories the women shared circled around their heritage as Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders. The more I sat with these stories, their victories and sorrows, their voices and emotions, the more I sensed a deeper concept woven throughout. In these stories, identity mattered, but presence was the heartbeat.

I learned from the conversations catalogued on the SIH podcast that presence is distinct from identity because identity has to do with defining self, whereas presence is concerned with the intrinsic value and worth manifested in self. Across the interviews, identity could be categorized and defined—for each of the women, identity was a set of qualifiers they collected in unique combinations to pinpoint their presence. These qualifiers act like GPS coordinates, narrowing down the exact location of an individual. Each of us have our own identity coordinates, but as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, the interviewees expressed a particularly keen awareness of theirs. 

Dorcas Cheng-Tonzun, in Episode 7 of the SIH podcast, illustrated this. She expressed that her Asianness made her feel as though she didn’t belong in white communities in the U.S. However, when she moved to China as a young adult, her identity as an American caused her to feel lonely and isolated—even though she is Asian, she had little in common with the Chinese people around her. As an Asian American in the U.S., she was singled out from the white people she grew up around, but as a person of Chinese heritage in China, she was expected to communicate fluently in Mandarin. In those two contexts, her race-identity coordinate and her citizenship-identity coordinate were assigned different valuations and expectations, which was expressed in how she was treated and in how she expressed herself. 

Most of the women interviewed on the podcast recounted experiences, during which their Asian identity governed their presence in a certain space. After all, it is easy to equate the assigned value of identity coordinates with presence since that is the way that society decides winners and losers—the winning race/ethnicity, the winning gender, or the winning career.

However, the interviewees had a different view: their presence (their essential reflection of worth and value) stands exclusive from their identity coordinates. On Episode 16 of the SIH podcast, Vivian Mabuni hosted two panels of her previous podcast guests at the SIH live conference. Diane Dokko Kim, interviewed in Episode 8, shared that despite the panelists’ different ethnicities and backgrounds, “there was a through line of this universal sense of otherness” in their stories, and that through the SIH community, “we have permission to be ourselves, to be the unique creations that God has wired us to be.” They showed that presence is the very be-ing of a person rather than the sum values of their identity coordinates. It’s the combination of mind, spirit, and body that is unique to each human being derived as image bearers of God’s presence—imago dei. Since God created humankind in his image (Genesis 1:27), each person holds significance simply by existing. This fundamental truth, gleaned from the women’s stories, demonstrated a collective empowerment pushing back on racism, and pushing for love and honor towards all.

Read Maddie’s first and second blog posts here and 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.

Moving Into a Stillness in My Life

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

As this summer has wound down, so has the end of my project with the Blacksburg Friends. I only have gratitude for the Quaker meeting and the opportunity afforded by the Project on Lived Theology to sink into a new way of being. At the halfway point of the project, I noticed that the lived theological aspects of this project were increasingly sticking out to me. I feel not only that I have been trying to capture my learning through the poetry collection I’ve been working on but also that I’ve moved into a stillness in my own life.

Outside of weekly PLT gatherings, meetings with Friends, and Sunday mornings spent at the meetinghouse, my own personal practice has deepened and grown in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I took on this project after four intense years of work at UVA (and four long years of high school before that!), which led my spiritual practice to be very academic and intellectual as a primary mode of connection to divinity. While I began to embrace a serious Jonang Buddhist practice in college, I primarily engaged with it in a brain-focused way instead of in a heart- or body-focused way. As I’ve had the opportunity to think about Quaker practice in relation to COVID-19, I’ve found myself moving into embodied and emotional forms of stillness, which I’ve only experienced flashes of before. The recentering that has occurred in my artistic and personal life has been deeply impactful.

As someone who has studied religion for a while, I was familiar with the idea that one can seek to “find prayer in everything,” but it wasn’t until this experience with the Blacksburg Friends that this mode of being still was able to illuminate other aspects of my life. For me, spiritual practice had revolved around meditation, chanting, prostrations, and personal study of Buddhist texts. In contrast to this, the Quaker mode of being in stillness has felt like something which I’ve been in touch with far outside the mat and meetinghouse; spiritual practice for me has grown to include gardening, cooking, hiking, painting, and of course, poetry. Through learning this personally, my understanding of stillness in other people has also deepened. Many of the Quakers who were kind enough to speak with me discussed other ways in which they connect similarly with the divine: doing dishes, arranging flowers, running, and many other activities.

Moving forward, I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from fellow Friends and to discover a firsthand experience of this stillness. I know that this orientation will ground further work as I transition toward school in Boston for the fall. I will forever be thankful to the Blacksburg Friends and the Project on Lived Theology for this fantastic experience and new insight about how I want to move through the world.

Read Siana’s first and second blog posts here and 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.

Puzzles and Progress

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

My family loves jigsaw puzzles. In fact, my father has an extensive collection of vintage Springbok octagonal and circular puzzles that we like to assemble over the course of an afternoon. We especially love that the detailed illustration and unique cut of each puzzle piece keep us engaged throughout the process. And at the end of just a few hours, we have a beautiful and satisfying product. While the individual pieces of my research this summer have been fascinating and unique, it has not been as straightforward a solve, as I had imagined.

I approached this summer unaware of what I would find in my exploration of the history of St. Paul’s Memorial Church (Charlottesville) and the Civil Rights Movement. At the bare minimum, I hoped that there would be some relevant information in the church archives and that I could find someone in the congregation who could point me in the right direction. Instead, I have been blessed by a wealth of resources and stories from the community. I have learned so much about the history of St. Paul’s in stories, some of which don’t seem to relate to my immediate project. Yet, each anecdote enriches my understanding of what characterized the St. Paul’s congregation during the years of 1947-61. This relational methodology aligns with what I have been learning about lived theology in the fellows’ weekly conversation with Dr. Isaac Barnes May. Human relationships have been the foundation of movements that have worked to live in a world full of love, fellowship, and justice. 

I have written in previous blog posts about my frustration at the lack of specificity in the written archives. What had been a frustration is now an invitation to learn more through relationships. Each week, I get a new lead on a potential interviewee or resource from a congregant at St. Paul’s. These leads help me to match existing pieces as well as discover new pieces of the puzzle. So many congregants have offered their encouragement and involvement over the course of this research adventure; I so appreciate that support. 

This project is not a puzzle to be solved in one summer, admired briefly, and then put back in a box on a shelf. I would love for it to live on in the St. Paul’s community as an ongoing investigation of how the congregation has historically and currently lives out its theology. I have a long way to go before I exhaust all potential avenues for exploring the impact of the Reverend Ted Evans’ leadership on St. Paul’s, but I am so grateful for the opportunity to start this project this summer and find so many connections along the way. 

Read Sophie’s first and second blog posts here and 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.

Rest and Wrestling

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

For many others and me, this past year was hard. Isolation, loneliness, and anxiety were feelings that often greeted me in my apartment for a plethora of reasons: pandemic, injustice, and my own personal struggles. In all these emotions, I was left wondering where my faith could possibly fit in, and in that searching, I wasn’t left with many concrete answers. 

I am so glad that I found the Project on Lived Theology at the time that I did. PLT provided me with the space I needed to really wrestle with the role of the church in responding to inequity and the real needs of its people. I looked forward to every Wednesday evening, when the fellows and I could discuss the week’s readings. I found letters from Latin American priests, bishops, and church leaders who took it upon themselves to use their privilege and position to take a stand against poverty, and to take on a preferential option for the poor. I have read graphic novels about John Lewis, a man who found his voice while preaching to chickens, eventually becoming a champion for voting rights. Above all, I have found others who also were wondering the same things, operating in awe of all the work that has already been done with all the faith and determination, but also with an inspiration to carry on forward.

One of my favorite quotes from the summer is “…we discern the will of God with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other” (Quote adapted from Karl Barth’s works, taken from Faith Rooted-Organizing, by Alexia Salvatierra & Peter Hetzel). So many of the people whom the fellows and I studied over the course of the summer had the courage to look deeply into their faith tradition in order to see how they could use that part of their identity for transformative good. They had the courage to imagine what it would look like to love their neighbor well and sought to bring that vision to fruition. They are a part of a cloud of witnesses who have set the pace and shown us what it is like to stay faithful to the call of justice.

Above all, I am ending the summer encouraged. To have had a summer dedicated to exploring some of the questions I have carried in my heart for quite a while now has been very restorative and healing. Even though I am still leaving with more questions and curiosity (which is not a bad thing—it just leaves me with more books to read!), I know now that there are answers out there, even if they may not appear to be as clear at first glance. To see groups like CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice) and the Poor People’s Campaign as they seek to become more compassionate reflections of a faith and of a savior excites me and brings me hope as I discern what my role in this work and reflection will look like in the future. 

Read Karen’s first and second blog posts here and 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.