The Borsch-Rast Book Prize and Lectureship of the Graduate Theological Union has as its purpose the encouragement of the writing and publication of theological scholarship by GTU graduates and current faculty. The endowment for the Borsch-Rast Book Prize and Lectureship comes from the sale of Trinity Press International, a venture dedicated to the publication of scholarly and often interdisciplinary theological studies. The prize and lectureship honor the joint example and collaboration of Frederick Houk Borsch (1935-2017) and Harold W. Rast (1933-2004). Hal Rast, after years as a senior editor at Fortress Press, was the founding director and editor of Trinity Press International, where he championed significant theological and religious studies. Fred Borsch was chair of Trinity Press International’s Board of Governors and then its Advisory Board. Borsch was also (1972-1981) the Dean and President of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and among the founders of the Graduate Theological Union Library. This prestigious prize of $10,000 will be awarded on an annual basis.
Recipients of the Prize
Dr. Ashley L. Bacchi, Uncovering Jewish Creativity in Book III of the Sibylline Oracles: Gender, Intertextuality, and Politics (Brill, 2020).
The Graduate Theological Union is pleased to announce that Dr. Ashley L. Bacchi (GTU, PhD 2015), Assistant Professor of Jewish History and Ancient Mediterranean Religions at Starr King School for the Ministry, has been awarded the fifth annual Borsch-Rast Book Prize and Lectureship for her 2020 work, Uncovering Jewish Creativity in Book III of the Sibylline Oracles: Gender, Intertextuality, and Politics (Brill).
In Uncovering Jewish Creativity in Book III of the Sibylline Oracles, Dr. Bacchi reclaims the importance of the Sibyl as a female voice of prophecy and reveals new layers of intertextual references that address political, cultural, and religious dialogue in second-century Ptolemaic Egypt. Uncovering Jewish Creativity has been praised for its solid scholarship and innovative challenges to long-held beliefs about gender roles in the ancient world, reorienting the discussion around the desirability of the pseudonym to an issue of gender. Dr. Bacchi is the first scholar to explore the significance of women and power in the Hellenistic world, and how this inspired Jewish writers to choose the female Sibyl as their prophetic voice, claiming her as the daughter-in-law of Noah and the prophetess of the One True God.
“Dr. Bacchi’s book is deeply grounded in succinctly and knowledgeably described feminist discourse,” said Dr. Margaret Miles, a member of the Borsch-Rast selection committee, former GTU Dean (1996–2001) and GTU Professor Emerita of Historical Theology. “Bacchi’s book seeks to open research, discussion, and debate not only on her source, but on historical interpretation more generally. She proposes that scholarly discourse can impact popular attitudes and allegiances in lively and productive ways.”
Uncovering Jewish Creativity represents a revised and expanded version of Dr. Bacchi’s 2015 doctoral dissertation on this topic, where she realized that the insights unearthed in the Sibylline Oracles represent a trove of wisdom particularly relevant for our own setting.
“In the Sibylline Oracles I have found a concern for what we would categorize today as social justice and equity issues framed against an apocalyptic backdrop. I think my book’s realignment onto gender allows for the whole Sibylline corpus to be re-evaluated for fresh insights that could speak to the anxiety, fear, as well as how to envision possibilities for hope that we are all grappling with right now,” Dr. Bacchi said. “I hope that [this book] makes scholars question long standing academic assumptions about identity that undergird much of ancient Jewish and Early Christian literature and open themselves up to the possibilities that looking beyond constructed boundaries has to offer.”
Dr. Devin Zuber, A Language of Things: Swedenborg and the American Environmental Imagination (University of Virginia Press, 2019).
In his award-winning book, Dr. Zuber examines the impact that Scandinavian scientist-turned-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg made on American culture, literature, and approaches to nature. By tracing the ways that Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, and Sarah Orne Jewett, among others, responded to Swedenborg, Dr. Zuber illuminates the complex dynamic that came to unfold between the religious, the literary, and the ecological in nineteenth century culture.
“A Language of Things is an interdisciplinary tour-de-force, interweaving art, literature, science, and intellectual history to shed light on a little-known strand of the American environmental imagination,” said Judith Berling, a member of the Borsch-Rast selection committee, Professor Emerita of Chinese and Comparative Religions, and former Dean at the GTU. “At a time when we are questioning the adequacy of dominant historical narratives, Zuber demonstrates how the thought and imagination of Emmanuel Swedenborg, often considered a non-mainstream figure, influenced and interacted with many threads of European and American intellectual history. He reminds us that there are nuances and strands of history — alternative narratives — that can enhance our ability to see our present and imagine our future.”
Zuber said part of the genesis for A Language of Things could be attributed to his interest in examining the lenses that art, literature, and religion offer for viewing our relationship to nature.
Each of the historical figures in his book present alternatives to our dominant ways of viewing the natural world as an inexhaustible supply of resources, or as something dead and disenchanted.
“I hope readers might take away an argument for how religion, and aesthetics, can offer up different temporalities, different ways of feeling—affects of wonder, awe, and love—for creation, and that such subjective modes of experience have a critical role to play in rethinking our place in nature,” Dr. Zuber said. “To revision the future with better equity, we need to unearth some of our more radical roots, understand their capacity for unsettling the present.”
A Language of Things was definitively shaped by the environment at the GTU, Dr. Zuber said, commenting that the book would not have been the same work without the interdisciplinary and interreligious pluralism of the GTU’s community.
“Ideas emerged out of classroom space, chats on sidewalks with colleagues on Holy Hill, over a coffee on Euclid where I met with a student to discuss their research,” Dr. Zuber said. “The GTU fundamentally altered the DNA of the project as it grew and developed over the years.”
The Borsch-Rast selection committee awarded Honorable Mentions to two excellent books, both of which exemplify the standards of providing new perspectives on a theological or religious issue through creative and innovative scholarship:
Jerome P Baggett (GTU PhD 1997) is Professor of Religion and Society at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, and a GTU Core Doctoral Faculty Member. In his book, The Varieties of Nonreligious Experience: Atheism in American Culture (NYU Press), Dr. Baggett provides a fresh perspective about American atheists, upending negative stereotypes to explore atheists’ views on morality and meaning.
Joseph A. Marchal (GTU PhD 2005) is Professor of Religious Studies at Ball State University. His book, Appalling Bodies: Queer Figures Before and After Paul’s Letters (Oxford University Press), provides new insights into biblical interpretation by using queer theory to help connect the marginalized and stigmatized figures in Paul’s letters to others, from both before and after.
Virginia Burrus, Ancient Christian Ecopoetics: Cosmologies, Saints, Things (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
Dr. Burrus (PhD, '91) is the Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion at Syracuse University and the GTU’s 2017 Alumna of the Year.
In her award-winning book, Virginia Burrus considers what insights ancient Christianity might contribute to contemporary reflection on the looming ecological crisis. Speaking on behalf of the awards committee, former GTU dean Arthur Holder noted that the questions Burrus raises about humanity’s place within the cosmos are “both perennial and urgent.” Holder celebrated the author’s inclusion of diverse conversation partners from the ancient world and a “dizzying array of interdisciplinary theories.” He added, “Virginia Burrus’s work represents the best of what we have come to expect from GTU graduates: rethinking traditions with a critical eye and a loving heart for the sake of making the world a better place—or, in this case, daring to hope that in the future there will be a world at all.”
Dr. Burrus’s receipt of the award was announced by GTU Dean Uriah Kim on November 23, 2019, at the GTU Alumni Reception during the 2019 Annual Meetings of the American Academy of Religion and Society for Biblical Literature in San Diego.
Dr. Burrus's lecture was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Honorable Mention: Dr. Bernard Adeney-Risakota (PhD, ’82) of the Insdonesian Consortium for Religious Studies at Universitas Gadjah Mada was awarded an honorable mention for his book, Living in a Sacred Cosmos: Indonesia and the Future of Islam (CSEAS, Yale University).
Timothy H. Wadkins, The Rise of Pentecostalism in Modern El Salvador: From the Blood of the Marytrs to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit (Baylor University Press, 2017).
Dr. Wadkins (PhD, '88) is professor of religious studies and theology at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY.
Speaking on behalf of the Borsch-Rast selection committee, former GTU Dean Margaret Miles heralded Timothy Wadkins’s The Rise of Pentecostalism in El Salvador as “engaging and informative, an important and timely contribution to North American readers’ knowledge of the fastest growing spiritual movement across the globe.” Miles noted that Christianity is exploding in in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, and that one-quarter of the world’s Christian population is now Pentecostal. “More than a remarkable geographical shift, doctrine and practice are also changing, as religious attention focuses on the activity of the Holy Spirit in individuals and society.”
While El Salvador remains predominantly Roman Catholic, more than 35 percent of its people are now evangelical Protestants, mostly identifying as Charismatic or Pentecostal. The country’s fast-growing Pentecostal movements are diverse, involving different social classes, the wealthy as well as the poor, women leaders as well as men, the educated and the uneducated. “Wadkins’s prize-winning book traces the Protestant-Evangelical renaissance and its deep interactive connection to modernization in El Salvador,” said Miles.
Dr. Wadkins gave his Borsch-Rast Lecture on February 12th, 2019 and Dr. Margaret Miles, professor emerita of historical theology and former GTU Dean provided a response. For more on the lecture, see the event page. See the video archive below our the GTU YouTube page for a video recording of Dr. Wadkins's lecture.
Honorable Mention: Dr. Ahn Q. Tran, associate professor of historical and systematic theology at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, received an honorable mention for his book Gods, Heroes, and Ancestors: An Interreligious Encounter in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam (Oxford University Press).
Naomi Seidman, The Marriage Plot, Or, How Jews Fell in Love with Love (Stanford University Press, 2016).
Dr. Seidman was Koret Professor of Jewish Culture at the GTU’s Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies and is now Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.
Members of the selection committee heralded Dr. Seidman’s work for its profound exploration of Jewish cultural attitudes toward love, sex, and marriage. Dr. Margaret Miles, professor emerita of historical theology and former academic dean of the GTU declared: “The Marriage Plot demonstrates a complex connection between literature and romantic practices in nineteenth century European Jewish communities. But Seidman’s thoughtful and intriguing revisions of such common assumptions as secularism, assimilation, and modernity extend far beyond her strong contribution to Jewish Studies. Readers are sure to be engaged, challenged, and persuaded to rethink our understanding of all sex-gender systems and how they circulate both in literary form and in the erotic choices we make.”
The inaugural Borsch-Rast Lecture was held on March 22nd, 2018 at the Chapel of the Great Commission, Pacific School of Religion. Dr. Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature in the Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley, and Dr. Daniel Boyarin, Herman P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture in the Department of Rhetoric, University of California, Berkeley, spoke on themes inspired by Dr. Seidman's book, with a response from the author. The lecture can be viewed here.