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Dr. Devin Zuber Awarded 2020 Borsch-Rast Book Prize and Lectureship

The Graduate Theological Union is pleased to announce that Dr. Devin Zuber, Associate Professor of American Studies, Religion, and Literature at the GTU, has been awarded the fourth annual Borsch-Rast Book Prize and Lectureship for his 2019 monograph, A Language of Things: Swedenborg and the American Environmental Imagination (University of Virginia Press).

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.”

Dr. Zuber will give a lecture on the topic in the spring, date and time to be announced in the new year.

Established in 2016, the Borsch-Rast Book Prize is awarded annually to encourage innovative and creative theological scholarship by GTU graduates and current faculty and carries a prize of $10,000. The prize is funded by an endowment stemming 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).

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.  

The Graduate Theological Union will begin accepting nominations of 2020 monographs written by GTU faculty and alumni for the next Borsch-Rast Book Prize and Lectureship on January 1, 2021. Visit gtu.edu/academics/borsch-rast-prize-lectureship for more on the Borsch-Rast Book Prize and Lectureship, including contest guidelines, the nominations form, and information about past recipients and lectures.