Until he went to college, James Thrall, 56, the Knight Distinguished Chair for the Study of Religion and Culture at Knox College, shared his family’s traditional Christian faith—one of the few constants growing up in a United States Foreign Service family in Japan, Burma, Korea and the Philippines.
Thrall’s outlook changed when he studied abroad his junior year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he encountered new perspectives that changed his understanding of religion.
Despite being global nomads, Thrall’s family always found a home church wherever they lived. Thrall was baptized in Tokyo Union Church in Japan, which, on its website, describes itself as “ecumenical and international.”
Two years before he entered college, Thrall’s family returned to the United States and settled in Bethesda, Md. Here they attended the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, where Thrall served in the youth group while his mother and sister sang in the choir. The family joke, Thrall said, was that they saw each other more in the halls of the church than in the halls of their home.
Thrall met his wife, Grace, in a Presbyterian youth group while still in high school. They both attended Colby College and became active members in their campus’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter.
Thrall initially wanted to major in English, but his plans changed when he studied abroad at St. Andrews. Before he was accepted, the university asked him to change his degree program to Divinity, as the university no longer had space in their arts and science school.
Thrall described studying abroad in Scotland as an “important year of growing up.” Thrall said he found himself returning to his “more liberal Presbyterian roots,” as this was his “first exposure … to the academic study of religion.”
In one Old Testament course, Thrall studied the biblical account of Exodus according to a theory “that rather than being a unitary, single experience of a specific group over 40 years, the story of Exodus was the result of the combined histories of a number of different groups over centuries that, over time, came to be conflated as one single narrative,” he said.
Coming out of InterVarsity, a conservative college Christian organization, it was hard at first for Thrall to take seriously the historical critique of Biblical narratives. But his experience at St. Andrews was like “taking blinders off from the possibility of appreciating a text.” A text, Thrall said, “could be literal, [but] not necessarily.”
When Thrall returned to Colby College his senior year, he said, “I wasn’t so interested in the InterVarsity approach to Christianity that I had been so involved with before.”
Thrall spent his first years out of college as a journalist, but always returned to his religious interests. After marrying Grace and settling in Norridgewock, Maine, Thrall worked at the Morning Sentinel in neighboring Waterville as the religion editor.
“It was just interesting,” he said, “to cover all the parishes, their practices and their customs.”
After working as a journalist for five years, Thrall decided to pursue a master’s degree in arts and religion at Yale University. Here, Thrall said he found “the complexity of the issues, the subjects, really engaging.”
At Yale, Thrall also worked for the New Haven (Conn.) Register, but was starting to accept that the academic study of religion, not journalism, was his niche.
Thrall said he also loved journalism, but it involves “shifting topics quickly and putting together in a very short space the gist of something. … Divinity school was an entirely different intellectual challenge.”
After Yale, Thrall worked eight years for the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, publishing a newspaper six times a year, overseeing media relations and composing press releases.
He then worked for two and a half years for the national Episcopal Church, which allowed him to explore religious expression in such places as the Middle East, Burma and South Africa, and to meet dignitaries such as Yasser Arafat, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.
In 1998, Thrall began pursuing a doctorate in religion and culture at Duke University, effectively ending his career as a journalist. He thinks highly of his years in journalism, as it satisfied his desire to take a more objective stance on faith.
As a journalist, he said, “I was enough of an insider to go to church, and enough of an outsider to wonder what I’m doing there … to have a particularly analytical sense of what services are about and what is going on.”
Thrall finished his postdoctoral work in 2005 and taught religion courses at Duke University and the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut before coming to Knox in the fall of 2010.
As a religion professor, Thrall believes that his goal is to help students broaden their understanding of faith.
“I get really excited about helping students think about religion in different ways, whether it’s to find out about a religion they’re not familiar with and may have simply had a bunch of stereotyped assumptions,” he said.
Louisa Sue Hulett was part of the search committee that brought Thrall to Knox. Hulett, the Richard P. and Sophia D. Henke Distinguished Professor of Political Science and chair of International Relations at Knox, said Thrall “meets a great need in terms of student interest in studying religion and culture, and religion and the arts.”
Students have responded well to Thrall’s exploratory approach.
Senior Ellie Sevigny, who takes Thrall’s course on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, likes Thrall’s emphasis on historical context. Another student, sophomore Luke Taft, described Thrall as “down-to-earth,” while junior Elisa Shields appreciates how Thrall always makes sure that students understand concepts.
Perhaps Thrall relates well with students because he is, like them, still searching, still trying to understand his faith and the faith of others from new and critical vantage points.
Note: This article was initially written for JOUR 270.