Competition: Theology and Religion Essay (and Video!)


At the University of Exeter, we want to hear your ideas about religion.

We’re inviting A-Level, IB, BTEC and GCSE students in any subject to send us 1000 words on one of the following big questions:

  • What role should religion play in a post-Covid world?
  • Can religious studies help us to better understand the world today?
  • Does religious understanding in society improve people’s quality of life?

There will be three prizes. One for the best standard essay (1000 words), one for the best creative writing piece (1000 words), and one for the best video entry (6-7 minutes).

To enter, simply email your piece to

Be sure to include your name, age, school, details of the qualifications you are studying, and the name of a teacher who knows you are entering. The deadline for entries is 10th July 2022. Winners will be announced at the end of July. The challenge is a great way to develop your research and independent learning skills before coming to university.


Theology and Religion Essay Competition 2021

At the Department of Theology & Religion at the University of Exeter, we want to hear your ideas about religion!

We’re inviting GCSE, A-Level and IB students in any subject to send us 1,000 words on one of the following big questions:

  • Would the world be better off without religion? Answer with reference to world events 2020-2021 (Black Lives Matter; Pandemic; Economic Crash; Free School Dinners/Foodbanks; American Elections; Climate Change)
  • Should everyone have to study religion at school? Answer with reference to world events 2020-2021 (Black Lives Matter; Pandemic; Economic Crash; Free School Dinners/Foodbanks; American Elections; Climate Change)
  • What role should religion play in a post-Covid world?


There will be three prizes. One for the best standard essay (1000 words), one for the best creative writing piece (1000 words), and one for the best video entry (6-7 minutes).

The deadline is 18th April 2021.

Lecturers from the Department of Theology and Religion will be judging your entries.


The best entry for each category will receive £100 in vouchers.

For details of how to enter, please see the below poster (click to enlarge).


We will be announcing the winner at our Theology and Religion Schools’ Conference in May 2021.

This competition is also being advertised on the University of Exeter Discover University team’s Facebook and Twitter: @DiscoverUniExe.


You may also find our pages for Teachers useful:

Reflections on the AAR/SBL Conference 2017

In October 2017, several academics from the University of Exeter Theology and Religion Department attended the American Academy of Religion Conference in Boston. Three report on their experiences of the conference.

Professor David Horrell

A busy conference and an overnight flight, followed by the train back to Exeter, leaves me feeling a bit tired, but it was, as always, a very worthwhile and enjoyable time. I presented a paper on J.B. Lightfoot’s reading of 1 Peter, in a session with other speakers (Jeanette Hagen, Todd Still, and Tom Wright), and we had an interesting discussion about Lightfoot as biblical scholar, and the similarities and differences with the discipline and context of today. One of the conference highlights for me (and for many others) was a session on “hair in the Greco-Roman world” – in which Helen Bond, Professor at Edinburgh, had her hair done in the elite Roman style by a scholar and hairstylist, alongside various papers – including one by Troy Martin, from St Xavier University in Chicago, arguing that the date of 1 Peter can be ascertained from the author’s reference to hair-styling (1 Pet 3.3): he argued for sometime after 79 CE, and probably between 79 and 81. My meeting also included chairing an editorial board meeting, meeting with a few PhD students, and also with a publisher, to discuss my next two book projects. And Boston was a good place to be, too!

Dr Louise Lawrence

I have just returned from the annual American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Conference (AAR&SBL) in Boston, US. I was on a panel with Dale Martin (Yale) and Dominika Kurek-Chomycz (Chester) in the Luke-Acts and Embodiment Session. Stephen Moore (Duke) incisively (and critically) responded to all three of our contributions. My paper was entitled ‘Coming to her Senses? The Embodiments of a Demon-Possessed Woman in Acts 16’.  I sought to probe sensory dimensions of embodiment in relation to the presentation of the Pythian slave-girl –  who is variously referred to as a ‘belly-talker’ or ‘ventriloquist’ by commentators. I used recent work on sound, embodiment and the female voice which has contended that voice is not just codified by semantic content, but also its sonorous, non-verbal, embodied features to try and bring this character to life.  Classicists and ancient historians have similarly noted how the ancient discipline of physiognomy determined whether people would be judged sane or insane, male or female, honest, marriageable, moribund etc. on account of the embodied sounds they made.  Continuing the embodiment theme I also attended a really useful session on God’s Body: Jewish, Christian and Pagan Images of God in Antiquity.
A real highlight for me though has to be the ‘Consultation on the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the Profession’. This was an exploratory session with a view to forming an advisory board on this theme. The presenters powerfully spoke of their experiences of chronic illness, pain, disability and the ‘ableism’ they perceived as inherent in the SBL conference. Some of the suggestions from speakers included very practical advice including video-guides of the conference space, quiet rooms with dipped lighting and softened acoustics, provisions for personal care if needed, and more accessible publications – book synopses for slow readers, or those who ‘read’ in mixed media (Braille; sign etc.). All participants spoke of the need to cultivate a ‘sense of belonging’ for those with disabilities in an academic conference such as SBL, and also the exhaustion of having to continuously advocate in an academy which often seems to be totally oblivious to embodied (and I would add en-minded) diversity. This is a really important initiative and I really hope it can make headway in making SBL a more inclusive space for those with disabilities.
On a team-Exeter note (!) I caught up with Francesca – which was fantastic. Aside from giving papers, she was also acting as an ‘SBAllie‘  – ‘a presence or resource to support people experiencing harassment of any kind’ at the conference. This role was indicated by the SBAllie badge she wore. This too is a really important initiative. Many people have experienced feeling out of place, excluded or troubled for one reason or another at conferences like SBL, so to have self-identified ‘allies’ who people can talk to confidentially about such issues is a really welcome initiative.
Finally, I attended the editorial board meeting of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament whilst in Boston. I was also honoured to be confirmed as the editor-elect of this journal. I will be taking over as editor from next summer. This is both an exciting and daunting prospect!
The countdown now begins to AAR&SBL 2018 –  in Denver Colorado  . . .

Dr David Tollerton

Later this week I’m travelling to Boston, the home of the American Revolution, to talk about ‘British Values’. This isn’t some belated attempt to return the United States to Her Majesty’s rule, but rather to contribute to a wider discussion about religion, history, and education. The term ‘British values’, first coined amidst counter-radicalisation policy, has in recent years become ubiquitous in UK educational contexts, and in my paper I’ll be addressing how this development interacts with issues of religious diversity, national identity-construction, and perceptions of history. Hearing responses to my ideas from a specifically international audience is something I’m especially looking forward to.

Professor David Horrell is Professor of New Testament Studies and the Director of the Centre for Biblical Studies. Dr Louise Lawrence is Senior Lecturer in New Testament studies. Dr David Tollerton is a lecturer in Jewish Studies and Contemporary Biblical Cultures and the Director of Postgraduate Research for the Theology and Religion department.

Also attending the conference from our department were Dr Brandon Gallaher (Lecturer of Systematic and Comparative Theology), Dr Daniel Pedersen (Postdoctoral Research Fellow), Prof Francesca Stavrakopoulou (Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion), and Prof Christopher Southgate (Associate Professor of the University of Exeter).

In anticipation of the AAR/SBL Conference 2017

Over the next few days, several of our department shall be attending the American Academy of Religion Conference in Boston. Three give their anticipations for the conference:

Professor David Horrell:

I am more or less prepared to head off to the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, a gathering of around 10,000 scholars in Bible and religion that this year takes place in Boston, Massachusetts. The heart of the conference is of course the presentation and discussion of papers, and mine is, thankfully, pretty much ready. But apart from the paper sessions, the conference is an opportunity to attend various editorial board meetings, and to meet with publishers, international (distance) PhD students, and colleagues from around the world working in similar areas. And, I confess, two highlights for me are to share a hotel room with a good mate from PhD days, 25 years ago in Cambridge, and to gather for dinner with a few colleagues who have become good friends over the years.

Professor Christopher Southgate:

As usual I shall be attending the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Boston in mid-November. This is held jointly with the Society of Biblical Literature and is an unparalleled opportunity for networking with scholars of religion from all over the world. Job interviews are held there, and there is much courting of the editors from the big publishing houses. This year there is a pre-meeting of the International Society for Science and Religion where some vital contemporary themes in biology will be discussed, in particular the ever-increasing understanding of the importance of cooperation and symbiosis in evolving systems, and the new technology of gene editing known as CRISPR. The ISSR pre-meeting is a really good place to get up to speed with these developments and discuss their implications.

After the pre-meeting the full postmodern smorgasbord of AAR opens up. There are plenaries – in Atlanta in 2015 I had the privilege of hearing ex-President Jimmy Carter, remarkably sharp and lucid at 91 – but more typically delegates are part of their own little micro-communities, each with their own ‘canon’ and ‘hierarchy’. My own typical drop-in spots are the Science, Technology and Religion Group where I am on the Steering Group, and the Religion and Ecology group. But it’s fun to see what other groups are up to – the people who know Schleiermacher backwards, the people whose canon begins and ends with Tillich. Because it is a co-conference with the SBL one can also immerse oneself in Second Corinthians, or come to that the application of texts of many religions to all sorts of politically correct causes. The papers are typically short and often delivered by young scholars seeking to make their way in the field. One drops in and out, and tries not to spend too long in the vast book hall…

I have the honour of chairing the last session of the Science, Technology and Religion Group on the future of the field, and will be fascinated to see where a very diverse constituency thinks it should go.


Dr David Tollerton:

Later this week I’m travelling to Boston, the home of the American Revolution, to talk about ‘British Values’. This isn’t some belated attempt to return the United States to Her Majesty’s rule, but rather to contribute to a wider discussion about religion, history, and education. The term ‘British values’, first coined amidst counter-radicalisation policy, has in recent years become ubiquitous in UK educational contexts, and in my paper I’ll be addressing how this development interacts with issues of religious diversity, national identity-construction, and perceptions of history. Hearing responses to my ideas from a specifically international audience is something I’m especially looking forward to.

Professor David Horrell is Professor of New Testament Studies and the Director of the Centre for Biblical Studies. Professor Christopher Southgate is Associate Professor of the University of Exeter. Dr David Tollerton is a lecturer in Jewish Studies and Contemporary Biblical Cultures and the Director of Postgraduate Research for the Theology and Religion department.

Also attending the conference from our department are Dr Louise Lawrence (Senior Lecturer in New Testament studies), Dr Brandon Gallaher (Lecturer of Systematic and Comparative Theology), Dr Daniel Pedersen (Postdoctoral Research Fellow) and Prof Francesca Stavrakopoulou (Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion).

2017-18 Research Seminars

Here are details of our dept research seminar series for the 2017-18 academic year. There are lots of great speakers and wonderful topics. We’re really looking forward to them!

All seminars (*aside from 29 Sept) are held on Tuesdays in Amory 105, 2.00-3.30pm (1.30pm for drinks).

*Friday 29 September: Ashon T. Crawley (University of Virginia), ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee: Kenneth Morris’s Sonic Imagination’ (2.30-4.30pm, Streatham Court D)

10 October: Tom Hunt (Newman University), ‘The Influence of the Algerian War (1954-1962) on the Study of Late Antique Christianity’

24 October: Michael Burdett (University of Oxford), ‘The Last Judgement and the Desire for Someone Who Faces Us’

7 November: Louise Lawrence (University of Exeter), ‘Bible and Bedlam: Madness and New Testament Interpretation’

21 November: Jonathan Hill (University of Exeter), ‘In Defence of Inactivity: Boredom and Serenity in Heaven’

5 December: Francesca Stavrakopoulou (University of Exeter), ‘The Troublesome Corpse’

16 January: Jessica Keady (Trinity Saint David), ‘Purity and Performance: The Construction of the Male in the Dead Sea Scrolls’

30 January: Daniel Pedersen (University of Exeter), ‘An Account of “What Actually Happened”: On the Necessity of a Historical Account of the Origins of Sin’

13 February: Catrin Williams (Trinity Saint David), ‘Persuasion through Allusion: Evocations of “Shepherd(s)” and their Rhetorical Impact in John 10’

27 February: Jon Morgan (University of Exeter), ‘An Aid that Fits: Genesis 2 and the Anthropological Machinery of Sex Robots’

13 March: Gordon Lynch (University of Kent), ‘Faith, Child Rescue and Child Abuse: Re-visiting Catholic Child Migration Schemes to Australia, 1946-1956’

27 March: Megan Warner (University of Exeter), ‘On Trauma and Bible and on Bible and Trauma’

1 May: Susannah Cornwall (University of Exeter), ‘Virtue, Welfare and Health: Modelling a Spiritual Care Framework for NHS Gender Clinics in England’

15 May: Susan Gillingham (University of Oxford), ‘Writing a Reception History Commentary: Aims, Methods and Resources’

29 May: Paul Fiddes (University of Oxford), ‘Wisdom and the World in Christian Theology?’

Reflections from three PhD alumni

Karen O’Donnell

I completed my PhD in Theology & Religion at Exeter University in April 2016. My research focused on the impact of trauma on theological discourse. When I reflect back on my time at Exeter I wish I hadn’t been in such a rush to finish my research! I found the department to be such a friendly and collegiate place. I really enjoyed getting to know all the various members of staff and students and I know my time there prepared me very well for life after the PhD. The opportunities I had for sharing and developing my research alongside the teaching I did whilst studying was so helpful in broadening my experience beyond just the PhD.

Before I finished myO%27Donnell doctoral studies, I had already been appointed as a Research Fellow at Durham University. I took up this appointment less than a month after my viva! My role here at Durham is based in CODEC which is a research centre for digital theology. I’ve spent the last year researching whether you can (or should!) train to be a vicar (mostly) online. I think the answer is yes but that it requires some shifts in our theological thinking about digital spaces. I’ve been researching the nature of our corporeality in digital spaces in order to challenge the idea that when we go ‘online’ we become disembodied. This research will be published as a journal article later this year. Earlier this year I signed a contract with SCM Press to publish a version of my doctoral thesis as a monograph, so I’ll be spending the upcoming summer editing that and getting it ready for publication.

This post has given me opportunity to present my research internationally and to meet fascinating people doing really interesting work from around the world. Whilst it is primarily a research position, I have also had the opportunity to teach here at Durham and in various other contexts. In the coming months I’m excited about developing my work in digital theology more deeply. My research is moving into considering sacramentality in digital spaces—a really juicy topic! I know my time at Exeter prepared me so well for the joys and the difficulties of academic life—I can’t think of a better place to have taken my first steps into this world.


Bethany Sollereder

In aSollereder rather odd move, I went from my PhD in theology to working at the Materials Department at Oxford University. In a slightly confusing job, I work for the materials department where I consult for the Templeton World Charity Foundation. It has been a job full of cool opportunities: conferences around the world, meeting and helping fabulous researchers who are doing cutting edge work in science and religion, and being able to promote interesting lines of theological scholarship, including the “Practical Theodicy” project being run by Prof. Christopher Southgate. The job has non-stop travel (since January, I’ve been to Canada, the Bahamas, New Zealand, New York, Athens, and more locally Edinburgh and Canterbury) and sometimes the travel has been through unusual means. I never knew I would learn to co-pilot a single engine plane, for example. I also started tutoring for the faculty of Theology and Religion about a year and a half ago, so life has been a nice mix of scholarship, travel, and teaching.

However, it is now time to move on, and in September I will take up at two year research position in Theology here in Oxford, as one of the 12 globally-placed St Andrews Fellows in Science and Religion. I will be trying to develop a “compassionate theodicy”—attempting to reorient the purpose of theodicy away from the dispassionate intellectual exercise that now exists, which is a set of arguments lobbed between Christian philosophers and their sceptical atheist or agnostic counterparts, and see if theodicy can be moved towards something that could help Christian believers who are struggling with faith in times of suffering.

Reflecting back on my time in Exeter, I continue to be amazed by the quality of my supervision. It was an extremely warm and caring environment, and I never felt “lost” in the system. Rather, there was a sense of rich collegiality between the faculty and the students, aided by events like regular morning trips for coffee. My supervisor, Chris Southgate, was fabulously generous with his time and even rewrote two courses that we taught together, just so that they would incorporate my interests (“More Bible! More history!”). The PhD was hard work—desperately difficult at times—but Exeter was a great place to do it. Looking back, there is no other programme in the world I would have gone for instead.


Robert Meditz

I have never written a book before, and did not know what to expect, and did not know whether a publisher would be interested in my dissertation on Paul Tillich and Judaism, which carried the title Dialectic of the Holy: Paul Tillich’s Idea of Judaism within the History of Religion. One thing that worked in my favor is that I gave a short paper on one of the core arguments fromMeditz my dissertation at a small Tillich conference in Oxford in July of 2014, the day before I graduated from Exeter. My paper was selected to be in the conference proceedings, to be published by DeGruyter (my book came out before the conference proceedings!). So I was on the “radar screen” of DeGruyter.


I submitted a book proposal in January of 2015, and received a contract within about 30 days, and was asked to submit revisions by September of 2015. They were flexible in extending that deadline by about 30 days, and the substantive form of the manuscript was completed by year end 2015. It got quiet for a while after that, and by the spring of 2016 I was reading galley proofs, and after about four rounds of proofreading, I gave permission to print the final copy in July of 2016. The book was published in September of 2016, about one month later than the estimate in the original contract. I had to construct my own index, and I’m glad I put the time into that. My book is very “conceptual,” so there was a lot of cross-referring back and forth between some terms. The most difficult part of the proofreading was converting the UK format on the use of single and double quotes to the U.S. format – ugh! But it all worked out nicely in the end. I thought DeGruyter was great, and I am very pleased to have published with them.

An excavation of Mount Zion


Since 2013 I have been involved with an incredible archaeological project just outside of the Old City walls of Jerusalem. I found out about the dig during my MA Jewish Studies at KCL where I was being taught a module on the Bible and Archaeology by Prof. Joan Taylor. Joan had previously worked with Dr Shimon Gibson on other projects and he, as the dig director, was launching a new expedition on Mount Zion, Jerusalem. That summer I spent two weeks digging out a dark, wet, first century CE cistern and found the first complete vessel, a cooking pot, of the dig season. It may have been brought down there when people fled from the Romans during the destruction of Jerusalem and cooked underground whilst in hiding. I think that was the moment I fell in love with archaeology. Nobody else had seen or touched this item for thousands of years until I found it.

The site is located on the slope outside the Old City walls but was within the ancient walls during the Roman period. In the Byzantine period the site would have been at the southern end of the Cardo Maximus as can be seen on the Madaba map. In the Early Islamic period Mount Zion was used for domestic houses, but the Crusaders and Ayyubids built fortifications across the mount including a gate tower, the remains of which are in this excavation. The site is just outside of the Zion Gate and is a continuation of excavations that commenced in the 1970s by Magen Broshi. In previous seasons the remains of a wealthy first century domestic building containing a mikveh, three ovens, a cistern and a bathtub were found. In the deepest area that has been excavated a large mosaic and partially constructed archway was found from the Byzantine period.

1175644_10153232171590442_988159164_nThe following year I was invited back to the team as a staff member, an Assistant to an Area Supervisor working on a different area of the site. It was disappointing that I could not return to my previous area, as it had become too deep to work in safely but it was thrilling to have been noticed and given a staff position. The 2014 season was very different to my first experience. Firstly as staff I had to stay for all four weeks of the dig season and secondly, I did not find anything near as exciting as the complete cooking vessel. But that’s archaeology for you. In 2015 and 2016 I returned as Assistant to a new Area Supervisor. However, in 2016 I was given for the first time my own little area which I was completely in charge of. Some may say it was beginners luck, but my team uncovered an ostracon, a pearl and a murex shell amongst other finds that really brought back that thrill I experienced in my first season in the muddy cistern. We also hosted a community day where families came and dug with us one weekend, the child of the site director, Dr Rafi Lewis, found our first gold coin  and it has Nero’s head on it. Our metal detecting guys were not happy!

More information about the coin can be found here:

I felt privileged to be asked to present my research twice in association with this project. In 2015 I gave a presentation to all the dig volunteers and staff on archaeology and Israelite sacrifice. It was the first time I’d presented my research that wasn’t just to other postgraduates, instead it was a mixture of professional archaeologists and non-academic volunteers. It was a great experience though and everyone was really interested in what I had said. The following year I was invited to speak on the University of the Holy Land’s Graduate Research Seminar Series in association with the Albright Institute. It was to take place at Hebrew University and I presented on the use of food and alcohol in Israelite Household Religion. The questions I received afterwards were challenging but greatly appreciated and many people came up to me afterwards and told me how interesting and informative they found it.


This summer I am returning to Mount Zion as an Area Supervisor. It will be a lot of responsibility; accurately recording every dig square, find, wall, baulk and drawing maps is imperative for scholars to be able to use this data in the future. Shimon Gibson has also mentioned that he wants me to be involved with the publication of reports particularly related to the animal bones that have been found on the site because of my research on food and sacrifice. This year will be my preparation for a future dig that Dr Gibson hopes to launch in 2019 in the Armenian Gardens within the Old City walls. I hope that I will be able to be involved with his excavations in the future, being a part of the Mount Zion team has been an amazing experience both in terms of the friends I have made over the years and the opportunities it has opened up for me academically. Going on that first dig in 2013 was probably the best decision of my life.

More information about the dig can be found here: 

Rebekah Welton

A Report on the 22nd Joint Postgraduate Conference on Theology and Religion

On Saturday 6th May, the 22nd Joint Postgraduate Conference on Theology and Religion was held at Exeter for the first time. With a total of 30 research papers presented, the day proved to be a fascinating exploration of the current research undertaken by MA and PhD students in the South West.

The presentations were split in to themes covering all things from ‘Belief and Practice in Antiquity’ to ‘Philosophy, Ethics and Revelation’. This is just some indication of the great diversity of papers explored during the day. The eclectic nature of this conference inspired a feeling of open-mindedness amongst the guests and speakers. This relaxed atmosphere, and the words of encouragement from my fellow postgraduate students, somewhat eased my nerves of presenting a paper for the first time later in the day.

I was curious to learn more about the areas of theology that some speakers had chosen to dedicate three years of their lives to, and yet had never crossed my path of study. I have found throughout my education that many students (including myself at times!) have a ‘but will this be in the exam?’ approach to learning, unwilling to clutter their minds with information that will not increase their final percentage. It was refreshing to be involved in a day where the audience were enthusiastic to widen their view of theology and engage in these new areas of study that are, no doubt, often outside their own chosen sub-discipline.

Following the coffee break, it was time for me to give my first presentation at an academic conference, with a paper entitled ‘Judas Superstar? A reflection on the relationship between Jesus and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar’. Despite my apprehension as a fresh-faced MA student addressing an audience who, generally, had much more experience of academic conferences, I was relieved that the questions were less intimidating than I had feared!

As far as academic papers go, I have found this one particularly enjoyable to present as the inclusion of movie clips and rock-ballads naturally accompany my analysis and the sight of audience heads bobbing along to Judas’ solos made me feel more at ease throughout the presentation. It seems the perfect way to have introduced myself to this academic rite of passage.

One paper I found particularly thought- provoking was by Amna Nazir, a PhD student of Law and Theology with cross-institutional supervision from Birmingham City University and the University of Birmingham. She demonstrated the necessity of interdisciplinary study in her paper, ‘The Death Penalty in Islam: A Religious Necessity?’. Having never studied Islam, this is a topic I knew very little about but I was intrigued by the provocative title.

Nazir explored the death penalty in Sharia law and international law and argued that, until there is absolute justice in the courts and governments of these countries, the death penalty cannot be right. Nazir explained that court cases’ reports are often restricted and so it is impossible to know whether countries have properly adhered to both Sharia and international laws. Furthermore, the great variance of its practice across Islamic countries is indicative of the fact there is a lack of consensus even within the faith about when the death penalty is to be evoked.

I found the paper incredibly interesting to listen to and the discussion that followed was just as rich. It became clear that there are a small number of Muslim voices supporting this view and, where westerners attempt to enforce their views against it, their criticism is merely met with distain or suspicion by Islamic countries. Ultimately, if the application of the death penalty in Islam is to change in any way, the impetus must come from within the religion.

It was exciting for me to be involved with such a packed day of research papers and, in my view, the conference aptly demonstrated the active interest present in the theology’s many manifestations. The post-graduate community highlighted their willingness to engage in interdisciplinary study and to recognise the impact religious studies can have in a modern context.

Stephanie Roberts

On Implicit Religion (Salisbury, 19-21 May)

I’m waiting at the bar in Sarum College with classicist and fellow Implicit Religion newbie Jessica Hughes. ‘When I get home my partner will ask what this conference was all about… I’m actually not quite sure what I’m going to say…’

And in truth it’s a conference that defies tidy definition, with eclecticism of methodology and content very much the modus operandi. It’s a small event (all the attendees sit together in large circle) yet one with a deep well of tradition (spanning some forty years). It’s a conference thematically inspired by a single scholar’s work (the late Edward Bailey) yet one that in just a couple of days intersects with sociology, theology, psychology, gender theory, memory studies, and knitting.

So what binds it all together? My own tentative answer is two-fold.

First, there is a recurring ambition to tease out what’s happening at the awkward edges of various phenomena we describe as ‘religious’ or ‘secular’. When is devotion to a practice or an idea to be understood as ‘religious’, and when is it not? What are the power-dynamics and contextual factors at play when we label something ‘religion’?

But the second element is a commitment to an unusual mode of conference organisation, specifically one in which participants are asked to circulate 5-8,000 word papers well in advance, and an expectation that, in person, each presenter then offer merely a few prompts for discussion. This is, in other words, a conference in which preparation and intellectual generosity are key. It’s also one where, at its best, formal hierarchy is put to one side, with input coming from final year undergraduates through to emeritus fellows.

Implicit religionAnd most of the time it works. In what ways do fan cultures ritualise their devotion, and re-imagine their identities? How do women grieve, memorialise, and provide comfort through traditions of textile production? What is it to ‘feel’ the Christmas spirit? Why are so many people ticking ‘Christian’ on censuses while rarely turning up in churches? And (for my own paper) how is state-led Holocaust remembrance borrowing and reconfiguring manifestations of sacrality? These are just a few of the topics that came into view in what was a packed programme of less than 48 hours.

The emphasis is on working things through together, exploring unexpected connections, taking a few risks. The bumpy usually-productive/occasionally-frustrating outcome sits at the far side of the spectrum to the conferences of dress-codes and niche panels.

And at the end of it all I find myself, on the one hand, wary of saying we’ve further nailed down the exact parameters of religion vs. non-religion, yet on the other, no less convinced that there have been and will continue to be so many modes in which to experience the world.

If every conference was like Implicit Religion maybe I’d eventually feel like I was building with jelly. But without intellectual spaces like this the risk is of remaining hubristically oblivious to the brittle fragility of our categories.

David Tollerton

Game of Thrones in the Caucasus: ‘The Chronicle of Georgia’ and the rise of Georgian Nationalism

As tourists look at the view from Mtatsminda (Holy Mountain) north across Tbilisi they are struck first and foremost by the enormous scale of the new Sameba (Trinity) Cathedral straight ahead of them; a little higher still is the Cathedral of the Iverian Virgin Mary rising from Makhata hill and the casual viewer would be correct in interpreting this as a sign of the immense influence the Georgian Orthodox Church wields in today’s Georgia.

If however you turn to the left and look northwest, there is something a little odd on the horizon. On a low hill stands a black shape looking uncannily like Stonehenge and glowering forbiddingly even on the sunniest of days. If you didn’t know any better you might be forgiven for thinking that Tbilisi has a megalithic monument to beat all others, but then the sheer size of the structure and its hulking darkness may cause the curious to wonder just what exactly it is that they are looking at?

The answer is The Chronicle of Georgia, a grandiose vanity project begun in 1985 in what would turn out to be the dying years of the Soviet Union by the celebrated Soviet modernist sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, President of the Russian Academy of Arts. Strangely this vast monument is mentioned in no guide book to modern Tbilisi and very few locals even know it is there, let alone admitting to visiting the place. The Tbilisi Museum of Modern Art is a private institution owned by Tsereteli and its permanent collection consists only of his works and a large collection of photographs of the sculptor with the world’s wealthiest and most influential people. However none of these pictures nor the many coffee table books on show make reference to The Chronicle….So what on earth is it? What is going on? Given the dearth of information on the project, apart from establishing that it began with Soviet state funding in 1985, all that follows has been gleaned from conversation with a local architect and first-hand observations based on a visit to the site.


In the dying days of the Soviet Union those favoured by the Party were exceptionally powerful and, if you had the right connections, it was easy for celebrated cultural figures to raise funding for vanity projects – which is what Tbilisi society says was the case with Tsereteli and his Chronicle. However the timing proved to be off; only six years later the Soviet Union collapsed and the mysterious buildings around the complex remained unfinished. More seriously perhaps, several bronze panels were stolen and, at the time of writing, look unlikely ever to be replaced. When we look at the timing of the monument things are seriously weird because six years before the end of Communism Tsereteli built a hymn of praise to Christianity and, specifically, a Georgian Christian past on a hill outside the capital. The bottom quarter of each of the hulking monoliths depicted a scene from the life of Christ (it is a number of these panels that have now been stolen) and above each of these Christian scenes a hero (or heroine – but mainly heroes) of Georgian history is depicted in a cruciform cartouche in a manner that deliberately equates the life of Christ with the struggles of the Georgian nation. This goes against the iconographical conventions of Christian Art, where Christ is normally placed in the most exalted position and often shown larger than the figures around him; he is certainly not placed at ground level a quarter of the size of the human figures above him.

In case the viewer misses the significance of the visual imagery on a terrace to the left as the visitor approaches the monument are thirteen double life-sized figures representing the Thirteen Syrian or Assyrian Fathers who are purported to have brought monasticism to sixth century Georgia. They stand gazing out over the monument and the eerie ambience of the place is… well, to be honest you really do feel that you are in an episode of Game of Thrones and gaze around for the dragons or the white walkers to appear.


But this is Georgia, a place that often seems unacquainted with irony or parody. Whilst the monument gives the outsider an uneasy feeling that Tsereteli was using Christian imagery to mould a personal view of a glorious Georgian past; very much a visual statement in the mode of Blake’s Jerusalem that Christ is synonymous with the destiny of the nation of Georgia (in the way that ‘Jerusalem was built amongst the dark Satanic mills’), there is now an added layer of meaning. Today the land the monument stands on is covered with signs stating clearly (in Georgian) ‘territory of the church’. To the north of the monument itself a new chapel has been constructed and the Georgian Church has appropriated this strange, late Communist monument to a quasi-religious national past for itself.

Given the fact that Christ is subordinate to the heroes of Georgian identity this is, theologically speaking, rather strange. But then the pieces of the puzzle fall into place; in a Communist society uneducated in religion there would be no difficulty in raising men above the Son of God – the more relevant question is perhaps why Christ is included in this historical vision at all?  More recently, since the fall of Communism, there has been a resurgence in religiosity and in the number expressing a religious vocation, but there has not been a similar expansion in theological education. Rather than looking to the ancient monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos founded by Georgian monks in the tenth century as their source of spiritual learning, the Georgian Orthodox Church has turned instead towards Moscow and follows a hierarchy as debilitated as the rest of the post-communist world by the Soviet prohibition of theological study.

The Chronicle of Georgia can best be understood as a result of this theological weakness; a strange hybrid imagery where a localised form of Christianity becomes inextricably entwined with fierce nationalism – it is a vision which is strangely powerful and very, very unsettling. Jokes about Mordor or the land beyond the Wall don’t seem quite so funny when you are actually there and that might be why so few people visit the monument. Certainly the tide of Nationalism (with a capital ‘N’) sweeping the world at the moment feels very dangerous when in a place where Christ appears subordinate to the desires of his earthly servants.

Professor Emma Loosley