5 questions with… common reading committee, religious studies chair Timothy Beal

bealTimothy Beal is committed to engaging mass amounts of people in academic thought and discussion. Over the past two years, he’s earned two National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grants to do just that—including, most recently, one last month—and he also chaired Case Western Reserve University’s common reading committee, which selected the book read by the 1,250 first-year students in the Class of 2019.

The book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Norton 2010), provokes readers to examine how they identify each other and themselves at a time when stereotyping is at the forefront of national discussion.

At next Wednesday’s fall convocation, the author, Claude M. Steele, social psychologist and executive vice chancellor and provost at University of California, Berkeley, will share insight from his book. The event—marking the official opening of the 2015-16 academic year—is free and open to the public and will take place Wednesday, Aug. 26, at 4:30 p.m. in Severance Hall.

Beal said he’s excited to see how Steele engages the first-year students as “they begin what will hopefully be one of the most transformative and empowering experiences of their lives.”

In an effort to encourage such engagement, the selection committee worked with President Barbara R. Snyder and campus leadership to identify a book that would “help foster serious conversation and self-reflection about how to become a more inclusive community,” said Beal, Department of Religious Studies chair and the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion.

Beal’s efforts to spur meaningful discussion aren’t limited to the Case Western Reserve campus; he also wants to create an informed dialogue with the general public.

Last year, Beal and other religion scholars launched the website “Bible Odyssey: People Places and Passages.” Found at bibleodyssey.org, the website provides answers and information about the Bible, provided by contributing scholars such as Beal.

He said that the main idea for the Society of Biblical Literature project, which was funded by the NEH, “was to make the best of nonpartisan biblical scholarship accessible to a broader public.”

Beal received another NEH grant over the summer, when he was chosen for the foundation’s Public Scholar program. The new initiative supports scholars in the humanities to publish well-researched books for broad, general audiences. Beal was one of 36 authors to receive funding, out of 485 total applicants.

Over the next year, Beal will write his book, Revelation: A Biography. He describes it as “a ‘biography’ of the New Testament book of Revelation and the apocalyptic imaginations it has fueled, exploring the many, often wildly contradictory lives of this strangely familiar, sometimes horrifying, sometimes inspiring biblical vision.”

The book will be published by Princeton University Press in 2017 as part of its series, “Lives of Great Religious Books.” Other books in the series explore the biographies of everything from the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran in English to The Book of Mormon and C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

“Scholars in the academic humanities love what they study,” Beal said. “They believe deeply, moreover, that what they learn would be really interesting to other people, including non-specialists. Indeed, there are few spaces in public discourse today where people have the opportunity to reflect deeply on the kinds of questions that we in the humanities explore—questions about how we humans make and unmake meaning, and how those meanings are always both powerful and precarious.”

In the spirit of starting a dialogue, the daily talked with Beal to get his answers to our five questions.

1. What technology do you think we should have, but don’t … yet?

I’d like to say the ability to fly, but if I’m honest it’d probably be invisibility. But seriously, I’d love for someone to come up with an excellent PDF annotation tool for analyzing and interpreting texts and images with students in and out of class.

2. What was the most challenging part of your education?

In college, I barely earned a C-minus in “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament”—the very field in which I eventually earned my PhD and in which I now teach.

3. What popular icon do you most identify with? Why?

Taylor Swift, for obvious reasons. Honestly, I have no idea.

4. If you could live in any other time period, which would it be?

I’m happy in the now, but I am fascinated by the late 1400s and early 1500s, during which Europe was in the middle of a media revolution (the invention of movable type and the dawn of print book culture) and, tied to that, a religious revolution. This summer I got to spend some time in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany, wandering the streets and houses in which radicals like Martin Luther, Katharina von Bora and Lucas Cranach the Elder were reinventing both religious and media culture. And a lot of it involved beer.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

My favorite thing about being a humanities professor here is that I don’t have to choose between teaching and scholarship. Indeed, when I’m at my best, I find they go hand in hand.