Fordham Notes

Monday, July 28, 2014

Dancing Through the Dark Days of Imprisonment

Ray Brito is a member of Figures-in-Flight Released,
a dance group composed of formerly incarcerated men.
Photo by Michael Dames
With more than 2.4 million people currently behind bars, America is the world’s No. 1 incarcerator.

And of those who will be released, 50 percent will return to prison within their first three years of freedom.

“That’s a terrible thing to project around the world,” said Katherine Vockins, who presented the statistics at the National Organization of Forensic Social Work conference at Fordham on July 26.

Vockins is the founder and executive director of Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA). A businesswoman who also enjoyed community theater, Vockins devised the group while volunteering with her husband at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. A group of inmates asked for her help with a play they’d written, which Vockins helped turn into a production. Within the year, RTA was born.

In the 18 years since, RTA has grown to serve 150 incarcerated men and women in five medium and maximum security prisons throughout New York state. It offers a variety of workshops, including theater, dance, creative writing, film, visual art, dramatic literature, and voice.

“We are using art to teach critical life skills and social skills, which social service agencies have said is the missing link when people come home after being in prison for a long time,” Vockins said.

RTA helps give the incarcerated population a much-needed outlet, said Vockins. “It’s a chance to have emotions, to show emotions, to acknowledge fear and happiness—to be human again. Because the mask worn behind the walls changes the way people act and feel.”

The benefits of these groups have been proven, she said: a John Jay College study found better disciplinary and coping skills in prisoners who have been exposed to the arts, while a SUNY Purchase College study showed that the RTA participants finished their GEDs and moved on to post-secondary education faster than average.

The creative arts facilitate a positive change in incarcerated men and women, one which serving a prison term does not provide, Vockins said.

“For humanitarian reasons, for public safety reasons, and for just good old-fashioned economic reasons, we should change the way people come out of prison. They should come out healed and ready to come back and do something positive,” she said.

Andre Noel first came in contact with RTA while serving 15 years in the Woodbourne Correctional Facility. RTA’s dance group, Figures-in-Flight, had such a profound impact on Noel that, after completing his sentence, he vowed to continue dancing. The result was Figures-in-Flight Released, which performed at the Lincoln Center campus as part of NOFSW.

“We bring a message with us,” said Noel, the company’s director. “We want to express to society that we’re all human beings—we’ve been reformed and we’ve changed our lives. We continue dancing not just for entertainment, but to show the world that we’re capable of becoming successful in whatever we choose to accomplish.”

The group also reaches out to youth groups in the hopes of sparing them the ordeal of prison.

“We were kids when we got incarcerated,” he said. “Kids need an outlet. We try to help kids who are at risk to also express themselves through movement—to channel their anger and everything they have going on their lives.”

Woodbourne dance instructor Susan Slotnik helped choreograph the group’s dances, although some are also improvised.

“None of our movements are random, and the same movement doesn’t necessarily have to mean the same thing for each of us,” said dancer Ray Brito, who served 19 years at Woodbourne. “When we do a reaching move, one might be trying to pull himself toward a particular goal while another might be thinking about reaching toward a loved one.”

Brito credits RTA with not only helping to change the course of his life, but also keeping him going during the dark days of his imprisonment.

“In prison, everything was cold. We all knew we were in prison and couldn’t forget that,” he said. “But in dance, the aim was to feel free…  to just pay attention to yourself and nothing else.

“Attention is the very foundation of our program,” he said. “You have to be able to stand at attention, to be able to feel every breath, every heartbeat while also staying in-tuned to everything that’s going on around you. That might sound simple, but coming from our backgrounds, most of us made the mistakes that we did because we didn’t pay attention.”

Andre Noel, director of Figures-in-Flight Released




Photos by Michael Dames

Figures-in-Flight Released members include Andre Noel, Ray Brito, Jeffrey Rivera, Andre Kelley, David Montalvo, and Jason Bermudez. The group as part of the National Organization of Forensic Social Work conference, co-sponsored by Be The Evidence International and the NOFSW.

— Joanna Klimaski Mercuri

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Alumna Gives CSTEP Scholars Practical Advice on Medical School


Applying to medical school can be daunting, especially for minority students who may not have had the educational advantages of their peers.

But Nilda Soto, a two-time Fordham graduate and assistant dean in the office of diversity enhancement at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, wants students to know that with the proper support, they can become doctors.
Nilda Soto with Fordham CSTEP students at Einstein

“This is a doable, attainable goal that you have,” she told a group of 10 incoming freshmen in Fordham’s Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) for minority and economically disadvantaged students. “It’s a very disciplined endeavor but it’s doable.”

The students visited Einstein on July 22 as part of Fordham’s five-week CSTEP Summer Scholars program. Students live on the Rose Hill campus, take math and science courses, and visit medical, dental, and optometry schools.

In a conference room on the Einstein campus, Soto doled out practical advice on how to sequence college courses, when to take the MCAT, and the importance of summer internships.

Part of her goal for the afternoon was to debunk “the horror stories” about medical school admissions. Everyone’s heard a tale about the student “with the 3.88 average and the fabulous MCAT score who didn’t get in.” But admissions staff value more than scores, she said, citing her colleague in the diversity office at Einstein who “looks at the road you have traveled.”

If students can remain focused on their studies despite significant challenges, Soto said, “then we feel comfortable that you’re going to succeed in medical school.”

She cautioned, however, that the percentage of minority students in medical schools is low. She noted only 500 black men matriculated into medical school in 2013, out of 20,000 students, according to a chart from the American Association of Medical Colleges that Soto included in a packet she put together for the CSTEPpers. “If you don’t get the support and help, our numbers are going to look worse.”

A Bronx native, Soto graduated in 1974 from Thomas More College (Fordham’s undergraduate women’s college, which existed from 1964 until 1974, when it merged with Fordham College at Rose Hill). After earning a B.A. in urban studies, she worked on the Rose Hill campus for HEOP, the Higher Education Opportunity Program, and went on to earn a master’s degree from Fordham’s Graduate School of Education in 1978.

She has been at Einstein for 24 years, during which time she has worked closely with Michael Molina, CSTEP’s director at Fordham, advising CSTEP students early in their college careers.

“You have very good and focused young people,” she said, but they are competing against kids who’ve gone to high schools with extensive science equipment and resources. “And here are these kids thinking, ‘Maybe I got to dissect a frog.’ The program is needed to help level the playing field.”

Soto also accepts CSTEP students into her summer research program at Einstein and, in the case of at least one aspiring medical student, has provided extended mentorship.

CSTEPper Nabilah Nishat said the afternoon at Einstein—and the summer program—have made her goals seem more realistic.

“CSTEP showed me it’s possible to go into the health professions,” she said, “and because it’s possible, I’m inspired to go on.”



 —Nicole LaRosa









Exhibit to Highlight South Williamsburg

Still from "For Sale in Los Sures" (Los Sures)
Williamsburg is shorthand for hipsterdom in New York City conversations, but the Brooklyn neighborhood is actually two very distinct communities.

On July 25, a new show at the Fordham College Lincoln Center Campus' lldiko Butler Gallery will feature the part of the neighborhood that’s far-removed from the skinny, jean-clad, hirsute denizens of the epicenter of cool.

Living Los Sures, which will run through Oct. 5, is made up of selections from a collaborative documentary of the same name, about the south side of Williamsburg, by Union Docs Center for Documentary Art.

The selections--a mix of still photographs and short clips about residents of the neighborhood--take as their starting point Los Sures, a 1984 documentary by Diego Echeverría that showed the drugs, gang violence, crime, abandoned real estate, and racial tensions that plagued the area's Puerto Rican and Dominican community back then. 

Still from "Another Day" (Los Sures)
Like its northern hip-culture neighbor and the city as a whole, the community has rebounded over the last 20 years. But now it faces new challenges in the form of gentrification.

Union Docs Collaborative Program Director Toby Lee said that, with its rich cultural and political history, South Williamsburg is in many ways a distillation of challenges the city as a whole faces.

Gentrification, urban development, air rights, and more are happening all over the place, she noted--even at Hudson Yards around the corner from Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus.

“It feels like it’s a moment where a lot of these issues of community displacement are really in the foreground, and I think the history of the south side of Williamsburg has a lot to teach us,” she said.

Residents there were among the first to embrace lower-income housing coops, which were used to reclaim abandoned buildings for rehabilitation in the 1970s, for example.

“What Los Sures is experiencing in terms of the gentrification is what has already happened in North Williamsburg, which is unrecognizable for a lot of people. The demographics have changed drastically, and there are so many positives and negatives about it.”

Still from "Before After"
Stephan Apicella-Hitchcock, artist-in-residence at Fordham, works extensively with the group as a programming adviser. He hopes Living Los Sures will be engaging and provocative for the Fordham community.

“UnionDocs is an exceptionally professional and well-run organization that provides a much-needed platform for film and photography documentarians to present and discuss their work in a public setting," he said.

“I believe in what UnionDocs do and feel that their project at the Ildiko Butler Gallery will generate lively dialogue and food for thought.”

Living Los Sures opens on Friday, July 25 at the Ildiko Butler Gallery and runs through Oct. 5. For more information, visit the gallery website.

—Patrick Verel

Monday, July 21, 2014

Mural Making Provides Outlet for Volunteers and Soothing Scenery for Needy

Staci Bruce remembers seeing the pictures in a hospital some years ago. Pastoral scenes, animals, still life, all created to lend a sense of peace, calm, and comfort to an otherwise stressful environment.

Why, she wondered, couldn’t clients of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York also benefit from brightly colored artwork in its facilities?

So in 2013, Bruce, the agency's director of volunteer services, began soliciting artists' designs for therapeutic art that could hang in its various facilities.


Artists Olivia Servais and Mackensie Leigh answered the call, and on July 17, members of Fordham's Office of Development and University Relations (DAUR) paid a visit to Catholic Charities’ offices to help replicate their work. After tracing the outlines of the art on to square wood-and-cloth canvases, DAUR members used watercolors and sharpies to fill in the blues, reds, yellows, and greens of the collages.

Bruce said the canvases will be hung in facilities that are home to Beacon of Hope, an assisted living facility for 400 adults with severe mental illnesses; Catholic Guardian Services, which provides foster care services; and Incarnation Children’s Center, a nursing facility that provides specialized care for children and adolescents living with HIV/AIDS.

Beacon of Hope, she said, was the first to receive art, and the response was so positive that organizers at other programs began asking for pieces as well. In addition to the assembled canvases, Bruce has arranged for traditional outdoor murals to be painted on-site at the Incarnation Children’s Center.

“It’s an easy, fun way for groups to get together and contribute to the program,” she said.
For more information on how to volunteer, visit http://www.catholiccharitiesny.org/get-involved/volunteer/.















—Patrick Verel

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Is Modern Media Floundering? Not if it has a Solid Brand.

One day in the mid-1500s, Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, received a letter from a Jesuit superior seeking advice. Should he purchase a printing press for his province? And if so, what kind should he purchase?

Ignatius advised the superior to first ask himself, “Who are you? And who are you seeking to serve?” If a printing press is needed to carry this out, then he should purchase one.

Ignatius was centuries ahead in understanding the importance of brand, said Matt Malone, S.J., GSAS ’07, editor of America magazine, who spoke at a 2014 Jesuit Advancement Administrators conference session at Fordham.

Brand, which equals identity, is vital to an organization’s success. Father Malone offered America’s branding process as an example. Founded by the Jesuits in 1909, America is among the oldest weekly magazines in the country and the only national Catholic publication of its kind. At 105 years old, America has survived countless iterations of communications technology — an accomplishment few publications enjoy.

Despite its ecclesiastical connections, the magazine owes its longevity to neither divine intervention nor philanthropic loyalty. Its success, Father Malone said, boils down to brand.

“The defining characteristic of a modern media organization — the thing that is going to allow it not only to survive, but to prosper in this rapidly-changing media environment — is having a brand,” he said. “It’s what every organization needs to get right to accomplish what it’s trying to do.”

The first and most important question for an organization to ask itself is, “Who are we?” The answer should clearly distinguish its brand from its product.

“Brand is platform- and product-neutral,” he said. “For example, if IBM’s brand came down to ‘We make typewriters,’ then they would no longer be in business. Instead, their brand is, ‘We solve business problems.’”

Any ensuing questions, such as what an organization does, who is its audience, and how it accomplishes its mission, will derive from that first answer. Again, Father Malone stressed, the answers to these questions should never be tethered to a platform or product.

The brand inquiry at America generated a simple statement: “America is a Jesuit media ministry, a smart Catholic take on faith and culture that leads the conversation by producing content that is unique, accessible, relevant and impactful.”

“None of that has anything to do with our platform, that is, whether we’re in print, we’re online, or we have an iPad app,” Father Malone said.

Platform neutrality is especially important for media organizations, he said, because the communications field is in constant flux. These groups, which include university marketing and public relations departments, should focus on one task: To move from producing content that fits a single platform (such as print) toward content that can be disseminated across multiple platforms — print, digital, social media, and more.

And brand, Father Malone said, is what links it all together.

“Good media companies know that when you’re trying to build a community across multiple platforms, you need one thing that narrates the experience,” he said. “That’s brand — what makes multiple platforms cohere.”

Moreover, when a certain technology no longer serves the brand, then organizations must move on and find technologies that do, Father Malone said — though this often causes great heartache for media outlets grieving the decline of print.

But there, too, Ignatius was in the vanguard. Ignatius advised the superior that if he does purchase a printing press, then he shouldn’t get just any press — he should get the best. And if that should become obsolete, then he ought to move on to whatever will best accomplish his mission.

“We have to ask ourselves these questions, tough as they are,” Father Malone said. “We have to be unafraid to cherish what is perennial — the values that form our brand — and to discard the things that no longer work, no matter how much they’ve contributed to our wellbeing and prosperity.”

— Joanna Klimaski Mercuri

Mary Higgins Clark Shares Insights on Writing and Education

Mary Higgins Clark answered questions from Mary Bly (right), and
audience members at McNally Ampitheatre.
Photo by Tom Stoelker
“I felt like I was the child of a lesser god, because I did not have that diploma in my hands.” 

Best selling author Mary Higgins Clark, FCLC ’79, minced few words during an appearance at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. 

The reigning queen of suspense’s appearance, along with Fordham professor of English Mary Bly, Ph.D., was the closing keynote of the annual conference of Jesuit Advancement Administrators (JAA), held at Fordham from July 13-15.

For “Philanthropy and its Vital Impact on Education,” Higgins Clark spoke at length about what it takes to be a writer (you have to be a good story teller), her deep connections to Fordham, (she first visited the Rose Hill campus when she was 19 to attend a tea dance) and what a Jesuit education gave her (the ability to think).

Speaking to an auditorium filled with development professionals, Higgins Clark called herself living proof of the power of philanthropy. The sudden death of her father when she was 11 thrust her family into a precarious financial situation, but a scholarship enabled her to attend high school at the Villa Maria Academy in the Bronx. 

And although she signed a six-figure writing contract while attending night classes at Fordham College Lincoln Center, she stayed on to finish a degree in philosophy. 

Her 43 books have sold 100 million copies in the United States alone, and so Higgins Clark in turn has given back to Fordham; last year she pledged $2 million to create the Mary Higgins Clark Chair in Creative Writing.

“We must give back. There’s that saying, ‘Much is expected of those to whom much has been given,’” she said.

“So many people simply need help, and we all know the price of education. It only happens because people reach out to donors.”

Throughout the morning, Higgins Clark regaled the audience with stories from her past and her family, using story-telling skills she said here honed while growing up in a large Irish family. 

She compared suspense writing to going to a cocktail party. When you meet someone, you don’t want to hear their entire life story; rather you want the highlights.

“Especially in suspense, you don’t give 20 minutes to the weather and the atmosphere, and someone is having a cup of tea. You’ve got to grab the audience,” she said.

She also said social engagements are also key to engaging potential donors.

“I have said when I die, make it a party. I enjoy parties so much, if it’s good enough, I’ll climb out of my casket to go to it.”

Watch the full interview here.


—Patrick Verel

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Learning from Malala

Pakistani education activist Shiza Shahid, left, talks with Smart Girls founder and Gabelli student Emily Raleigh.

What does Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani education activist who was shot by the Taliban, keep in her purse? Time magazine and ChapStick, said Shiza Shahid, CEO & co-founder of the Malala Fund. It was a small detail that Shahid said should inform smart girls everywhere.


“She’s the anti-Miley Cyrus,” Shahid told a diverse crowd of young women at the 2014 Smart Girls Conference, held July 9 and 10 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus and co-sponsored by the Fordham Foundry and the Gabelli School of Business.


In a blunt assessment of Western values, Shahid told the young women that there are far more pressing concerns in the world than “thinking you need more money and shining your hair.”

Shahid, who grew up in Pakistan just three hours south of Malala's hometown, said that she had heard of her neighbor's mission to get an education for herself and other girls when she was just 19 and Malala was 11. Shahid contacted her via telephone and asked how she could help, and the two became very close.

Shahid received a scholarship to Stanford University, where she said she struck her classmates as “too serious,” and where she said she struggled make connection with a youth culture that seemed more interested in the Kardashians than in world affairs.

Her relationship with Malala, she said, began through the desire to "help and support people." Then Malala's struggle gained international attention after a Taliban gunman's attempt on her life.

“I thought, my God, that girl could’ve been me,” she said.

At the time, Shahid had graduated from Stanford and had settled in to “a very shiny, exciting job” as a business analyst with McKinsey & Company in Dubai. In a life-altering shift, she decided to abandon plans to earn an M.B.A. and start the Malala Fund instead.

“When she was shot the world was shocked, but Malala chose bravery over fear,” she said. “Afterwards we said, ‘OK this needs to be more than a moment; this can't be a tragic thing that everyone moves on from; this has to be a changing point in history.’”

Shahid, whose language easily segued from that of a businesswoman to social worker to NGO official, now works to empower girls through education so they can become agents of change at the grassroots level.  She said she held no illusions about the complexity of the problem.

“I wish there was one thing we could do help the girls, but it’s an issue of access and quality,” she said. “Very often, learning is different than educating.”

-Tom Stoelker


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Fordham professors on the World Cup, fan depression, & soccer in the U.S.

Photo: Deadspin.com


After a harsh and surprising loss to Germany, Brazil, the host country of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is out. Argentina narrowly beat the Netherlands and the world awaits the final game for the “World Cup” on July 13.


Throughout the one-month tournament, the professional athletes on the losing teams have walked off the pitch looking dejected. Some, even, in tears. The same could be said for their fans (especially Brazilian fans during the 7-1 beating they took at the hands of Germany). All of this emotion over a game? Why? We asked Fordham professor Paul Baard, an expert in sports psychology, to explain why it’s like this in the World Cup and various other sports, such as American football.

“The phenomenon is the over-identity of fans with their teams,” said Baard, a clinical associate professor of communication and media management. “In other words, a fan wants people to identify him/her with being the uber-’Patriots’ fan. When he walks into a bar, he delights in being sought out for his opinion on an upcoming game. He gets teased about being tried and true. He berates other team's fans. He ‘equals’ being a fan of said team.


“Just as having one's occupation become too much of an individual's identity (I work with professional athletes on this), they can also ‘fan out.’ A fan rooting for a favorite team should consider that role as a hobby, while it may be an important role for an individual. As in all of life, there are ups and down, especially in the clearly-defined win-lose world of sports.

“Hobbies can serve as relief from the pressures of day-to-day life, such as gardening, playing an amateur sport, etc.  Hobbies would seem best when they do not create anxiety, but relieve it.”

Here at Fordham’s Marketing and Communications office, a group of us went out to see the last game the U.S. Men’s National Team played in. (There was lots of sadness, but thankfully no tears, when they lost to Belgium.) Yet we were very aware of the enthusiasm for a game that hasn’t always gotten top-billing in our country. The place was standing-room-only packed with fans decked out in red, white, and blue. Is this an opportunity for Major League Soccer (MLS) to build on the seemingly-new fan base?


After all, the Big Apple's new Major League Soccer team, the New York City Football Club, has signed Atletico Madrid (one of La Liga's professional teams) player, David Villa, (pictured below) and reports say Barcelona star, Xavi, is next.


We asked a few Fordham professors, who teach in the Sports Business Concentration at the Gabelli School of Business, to weigh in:

Mark Conrad, associate professor of law and ethics, and director of the sports business concentration at Gabelli, said he wasn’t so sure that MLS can capitalize on the success of the World Cup, “at least not directly.


“It's hard to translate a once in four-year spectacle to a day to day league,” he said. “Witness the 1980 Olympic Gold Medal for the US Hockey team. It did not have much correlation to the National Hockey League (NHL).”

John Fortunato, a professor of communications and media management, and an expert in sports media and promotion, said he couldn’t see there being huge springboard opportunities for MLS because “many of these players play in European leagues.  

“MLS doesn't have the best players like the NBA or NFL or MLB. The gold medal hockey game a few years back between the United States and Canada did a great rating, but has had little impact on increased NHL ratings,” he said.

“This World Cup is doing great on television because the games are at great viewing times and because it is on ESPN, a network is promoting it a ton on Sportscenter. Next time (2018), it is in a more challenging time zone in Russia and is on Fox-- two big differences.”

Francis Petit, associate dean for academic programs at Lincoln Center, said the MLS should try their best given the changing demographics of our nation.  

“Unfortunately, for MLS, it will not capitalize on the World Cup to the extent it would like to due to various reasons including consumer options and professional soccer's historical insignificance within our country,” he said. “MLS will never be the National Football League, but it can certainly become a threat for leagues such as the NHL and the slow and tedious Major League Baseball games/product.”

-Gina Vergel

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Study Redefines the Monk Seal Family Tree

   Caribbean monk seal specimen collected in Matanzas, Cuba. (Image: Henry W. Elliott/US National Museum)

What’s in a name? Quite a bit when it comes to monk seals, says Sergios-Orestis Kolokotronis, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. 

Kolokotronis is the co-author of a recent study in the journal Zookeys that has named the first new genus of modern pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses) in more than 140 years.

Until the 1950s, he said, there were three identified species of monk seals—the Hawaiian, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean—and it was assumed that all three were closely related. The Caribbean monk seal was last seen in the early 1950s, the victim of overhunting and possibly disease. 

The study, however, has found that the relationship between the three species is far more distinct than was previously thought. As both the Hawaiian and Mediterranean seals are now dangerously close to extinction (numbering just 600 and 1,200 respectively), that distinction is cause for intensified alarm for the remaining two species. 

Using museum specimens of the extinct Caribbean seal, researchers from the Smithsonian, the Leibniz Institute in Berlin, and Fordham conducted DNA analysis and skull comparisons that allowed them to clarify the extinct Caribbean species’ exact spot in the monk seal family tree. And it’s pretty far from its cousin in Hawaii, and even farther from its Mediterranean brethren. 

The Atlantic and Pacific monk seals swam freely between North and South America some 3 to 4 million years ago before tectonic shifts closed the Isthmus of Panama. At that time, they split and evolved into distinct species. 

“By studying recently extinct species, those whose disappearance is due to human intervention and hunting, we can understand the living species better,” said Kolokotronis, “and surmise what obstacles they may face.”

He noted that while the cause for concern was substantial, there was a school of thought among some biodiversity specialists that if the numbers dwindled further, perhaps a transfer of the Hawaiian species to the Mediterranean species could help with repopulation.  

“People thought, ‘It’s OK if [one species] goes extinct because we can translocate,’” he said. “But we need more careful research. This should intensify intergovernmental collaboration to save about-to-go-extinct species.” 

Unfortunately, there is little or no talk among the countries to actively save the animals, he said. And while the findings and conclusions are impressive, there’s little cause for celebration in watching a species’ demise. 

“We gain nothing by just documenting the populations as they go extinct and not doing anything substantial,” he said. Read more on Kolokotronis' research here.

-Tom Stoelker

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Faculty Reads: Jonathan Edwards’ Passionate Pursuit of Rational Truth

Think “Jonathan Edwards,” and images such as a zealous preacher at a pulpit or a spider dangling over a fire might come to mind.

But as Kathryn Reklis, Ph.D. reveals in her new book, Theology and the Kinesthetic Imagination: Jonathan Edwards and the Making of Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2014), the Jonathan Edwards of the Great Awakening was about much more than fire-and-brimstone.

Reklis, an assistant professor of theology, contends that Edwards is key to a problem plaguing many contemporary theologians: How theology can save itself from irrelevance in the postmodern world.

She explains that by the mid-20th century, many Christian theologians were growing dissatisfied with the way theology had been conducted over the previous two centuries.  The Enlightenment, the “Age of Reason,” prompted theologians to approach their discipline in a rationalistic way, treating Christian doctrines like logical propositions in an attempt to cast theology as a science.

However, this “rational pursuit of ultimate truth” left some concerned that theology had abandoned its true strengths, such as an emphasis on the roles that beauty, bodily experience, desire, and emotions play in Christian life.

Reklis argues that 18th-century American preacher Jonathan Edwards strikes that balance between those domains. A follower of John Locke and Isaac Newton, Edwards strived to pursue truth through a rational, scientific method. And yet, Edwards was also devoted to a more visceral pursuit of truth. He defended the intense religious revivals (passionate preaching experiences that often inspired intense emotional reactions in listeners) of the Great Awakening, and believed people could know God through a “‘spiritual sense’ as true and reliable as one of our five senses.”

“He was committed to ‘the new science’ of his day—meaning, truth arrived at through experience and deduction, or what we might think of as the scientific method,” Reklis said. “At the same time, he was a strict Calvinist […] To defend his understanding of Christianity, he turned to concepts of human desire, emotion, and bodily experience as proof of first-hand experience of the divine.

“So he was this strange figure who was embracing modernity—science, rationality, etc.—and who was also using those new tools to defend a very ‘old-fashioned’ view of Christianity.”

Herself a blend of historical and contemporary theological training, Reklis aims to use Edwards’ “alternative modern” approach to explore the question of contemporary theology’s relevance and how concepts such as beauty, body, and desire might serve to revive contemporary Christian theology.

“In [Edwards’] day, evangelical Christians split from ‘rational’ Christians, or what we came to call the mainline Protestant denominations in the United States,” she said. “I try to show that the same concepts many mainline academic Protestant theologians want to rescue now—such as the importance of beauty, bodily experience, and desire—are the ones Edwards used.”

— Joanna Klimaski Mercuri