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Alumni Spotlights

Justin Crisp

Justin CrispSince graduating from the University of Tennessee in 2011, I have been living in New Haven, Connecticut, pursuing graduate study in religion at Yale University and formation for ministry in the Episcopal Church.  I graduated from the Divinity School this past May with a Master of Divinity degree, as well as certificates in theology and the arts and Anglican studies from the Institute of Sacred Music and Berkeley Divinity School, respectively.  This fall, I began my doctoral work in religious studies at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, concentrating in theology.  

The training I received at UT in the religious studies department not only prepared me for graduate-level work but inspired in me the passions and interests that continue to drive my writing and research to this day.  In classes on the history of North American religion and contemporary religious social thought with Dr. Mark Hulsether and Dr. Kelly Baker, I tried to gather a set of theoretical tools with which I could organize the wide variety of religious actors and institutions represented in American culture and make some preliminary judgments regarding the sort of religious formations and practices that facilitate or stifle the flourishing of individuals and communities.  These ways of thinking through and mapping the religious landscape of our culture are always in the background of my theological work, which is motivated in large part by the ambivalent potential of theologies both to challenge and to reinforce oppressive social arrangements.  In fact, I became interested in theology as an academic discipline while reading critical theorists and philosophers during my undergraduate work—scholars like Julia Kristeva, Slavoj Zizek, and Terry Eagleton, who found in theology of a particular stripe a vital political and religious imagination, rather than simply an outmoded way of thinking that naively reinforced hegemonic systems and practices.  Much of my work at Yale has been concerned with precisely this difference, has tried to learn how best to unravel the doctrinal knots propping up oppressive configurations of power in the hopes of diverting the lived ramifications of Christian belief in more creative and liberating directions.

Much of my research has focused on the various accounts Christian theologians give of sex, sexuality, and desire and how these different accounts affect the concrete practices and policies of communities of faith.  Sexuality has been one of the fault-lines on which my own church, the Episcopal Church and worldwide Anglican Communion, has splintered over the past decade, and in my undergraduate thesis at UT, written under the direction of Dr. Hulsether and Dr. Misty Anderson of English department, I attempted to tie this schism historically and theologically to earlier debates in my church over the ordination of women.  It's my sense that these recent debates surface longstanding anxieties regarding the body, sex, and God, and I hope that by giving these issues careful, sustained attention, theologians can not only advance robust affirmations of LGBTQ people in every arena of the church's life (though certainly that), but also get to the root of what's really at stake in these debates, which have been fought with such passion.  Arguments for the inclusion of queer people in the life of the church have, to my mind, too often been pursued on grounds that are basically non-theological (i.e. are based on a secular conception of 'rights') or are theologically-weak (i.e. 'modern people don't have to pay attention to Paul anymore'), and this not only evacuates these arguments of their full persuasive force but also short-circuits the possibility of their radically shifting the way the church thinks about sex and sexuality altogether.  In my own work in this direction, I've put theology in dialogue with queer theory, and the project I've proposed as part of my doctoral work would compare the account given of sexuality by Leo Bersani with theological interpretations of St. Paul's injunction to be "crucified with Christ."  The point at which I'll be ready and qualified to pursue that kind of project is still some time away, but I hope that, through it, I can make a small contribution to helping Christians, and fellow Anglicans in particular, think better about sex and God, and to help facilitate reconciliation between those factions of the church that have become so estranged from one another over the last few decades.

Since 2012, I've also been a part of the research team at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, which is directed by one of my theology professors, Miroslav Volf.  I'm assigned primarily to a project on "God and Human Flourishing" that seeks to return accounts of the 'good life' to the center of Christian theological reflection and to find more rigorous, even transcendent rooting for the flourishing of human beings than can be provided by contemporary secularisms.  I also continue to be involved in an interdisciplinary project that grew out of Yale Divinity School's Marquand Chapel and the Institute of Sacred Music, concerned with how the theatre might not only be the site of possible social and spiritual collaboration between artists and theologians but also offer resources that theologians need to discern the performative dimensions of Christian life, doctrine, and scholarship more generally.  

Cutting across all of these has been my formation for ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, which began shortly after my graduation from UT and has continued through my ordination to the diaconate at St. John's Cathedral in Knoxville this past June.  I'll be ordained to the priesthood this coming winter, and I'll continue my work as part-time clergy at St. Mark's Church in New Canaan, Connecticut.  I've been involved at St. Mark's since 2012 when I became their seminarian intern, and I've been so thankful to have the opportunity to practice pastoral care, to teach, and to preach there these past few years.  The crisis of preaching—that is, having to articulate your theology in public in a comprehensible and responsible way in only fifteen minutes—has been the occasion of some of the most rewarding (and theologically useful!) experiences of my life, and having the opportunity to struggle with complicated ideas and real life exigencies alongside devoted people in the classroom is a truly marvelous gift.  The beauty of theology is that, even as an academic pursuit, it, finally, is not the private domain of ivory-tower specialists but is always within the purview of a much broader public: namely, the church, as well as other interested democratic dialogue partners.  And I'm thankful that as I grow into the exercise of priestly ministry in theological work, I have the privilege of participating in the day-to-day life of this parish.  

My study at UT gave me invaluable tools for tracking the social and political ramifications of religious belief and practice, and it convinced me that religion has the potential not only to be wielded for ill but to make substantial contributions to the common good.  Everything in which I've been engaged since my graduation has been aimed at bearing this promise out, in the hope of making a positive impact in both the church and the world.

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