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ISSUE 117 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/12/2004

Barbour named Marty chair in religion

By Maren Daniel
Staff Writer

Friday, March 12, 2004

Religion Professor John Barbour was recently appointed the first Martin E. Marty chair in religion by President Christopher Thomforde. Barbour will spend the next three to five years exploring the College's mission and the relationship between academics and religion.

"What this probably means, in practice, is writing and public speaking about the ways my academic work is related to Christian values and addresses significant public issues," Barbour said.

Martin E. Marty was a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School when Barbour was a graduate student there. Later, he was a Regent at St. Olaf as well as an Interim President.

Barbour remembers him as an influential person who articulated his work in a way that was accessible to people who were not experts.

"Ive admired him for a long time," Barbour said. He hopes his writing will connect with as large an audience as Martys did.

Barbour, who holds a doctorate in religion and literature, plans to continue examining theological issues in autobiography.

"In my application for the Marty Chair, I proposed to work on two themes that build on my expertise in the study of autobiography," Barbour said. "I want to focus on travel narratives as a way of thinking about the religious dimensions of journeys, including those of St. Olaf students in our off-campus programs. And I will examine family memoirs for what they reveal about how an author's family context shapes his or her understanding of vocation."

In his work with travel narratives, Barbour will look into the role that religion plays in St. Olaf students travel abroad experiences. He is particularly interested in the affect that traveling abroad has on students faith.

"Encounters with other religions cause some to question their faith," he said. "Others become stronger in it."

He is interested in whether or not St. Olafs identity as a church college makes a difference in how or why students travel. He notes that, of the students who are Christian, most who travel do not do so in order to convert people, which was the original reason that Christians traveled.

Barbour, who came to St. Olaf in 1982 and served as chair of the religion department from 1998 to 2001, first became interested in autobiography when he was given a course related to it from someone who was retiring.

"It brings religion down to earth," he said.

Using works by Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Malcom X and Tolstoy, Barbour has taught courses examining how religious faith (or lack thereof) makes a difference in peoples lives. While his recent course "God and Faith in Autobiography" focused on Christian autobiography, Barbour has also examined multicultural issues and contemporary womens spirituality.

L. De Ane Lagerquist, current chair of the religion department and Barbours colleague, said that the study of theology in literature is a "growing field: something people are interested in."

She noted that Barbour has a "steady, consistent interest in autobiography, but continues to examine it from different angles." She is interested in how students will respond to Barbours work.

Barbour hopes to serve as Marty chair for four years. After that, he would either like to lead the Term in Asia or the Global Program, which he led in 2001-2002 with his wife, Meg Ojala, St. Olaf professor of art .

Barbour and Ojala have two sons. Barbour, who grew up in Northfield, is active in his church and awaits the release of his latest book, "The Value of Solitude: The Ethics and Spirituality of Aloneness in Autobiography."

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