Rediscovering King for Today: PLT Announces Prophet with a Pencil Initiative

Filing CabinetScholar Task Force to Write Essays and Host Public Form

With the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death approaching in April 2018, University of Virginia’s Project on Lived Theology is pleased to announce a new, $30,000 initiative, Prophet with a Pencil: The Continuing Significance of Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’—a gathering of ten scholars and practitioners, conceptualized and organized by Arthur M. Sutherland, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola University Maryland. Convening in Birmingham, Alabama, this June, the assembly’s work includes publishing a volume of essays and hosting a public forum on the theological ideas and questions raised by King in 1963 that are still relevant today.  

Typically read in American colleges and universities as an example of masterful rhetoric, King’s letter, written with a borrowed pencil, is actually a critique of Christian faith and practices; the letter admonishes a church in which King’s words had “a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.” Although many of the sentences in King’s letter, such as “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” supply the pages of our national quote book, their theological significance is often overlooked. The Prophet with a Pencil scholars will address this void by sharing and discussing their work during a research retreat at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) in June of 2018. Located in the historic Civil Rights District of Birmingham just across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park, BCRI is a cultural and educational research center that promotes a comprehensive understanding and appreciation for the significance of civil rights developments in Birmingham.

During the three-day gathering, this task force of scholars will share drafts of their essays, meet with surviving participants of the Birmingham Children’s March, and participate in an exchange of ideas with civil rights activists. After the gathering, pastors, congregants, seminarians, students, and theologians from around the world will be able to read the essay collection and participate in the discussion of the relevance and significance of the words of King’s letter for the church today through Prophet with a Pencil’s website.

Dr. Charles Marsh, the director of The Project on Lived Theology called Sutherland’s concept and rationale “altogether compelling” and looks forward to a productive collaboration.

The mission of The Project on Lived Theology is to clarify the interconnection of theology and lived experience and promote academic resources in pursuit of social justice and human flourishing. The Project offers a variety of familiar and unconventional spaces where theologians, scholars, students, practitioners, and non-academics can demonstrate the importance of theological ideas in the public conversation about civic responsibility and social progress. The project was established in 2000 with a grant from the Lilly Endowment.

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