July 15, 2004
Vol. 23 No. 19

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    Doniger succeeds Gilpin as Martin Marty Center director, bringing influence of recent travels to Senegal, Cuba

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Inspired by Indian poets and South African activists, Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School and the College, plans to bring new directions to the Martin Marty Center as its newest director.

    A luminary in the sphere of international religious studies, Doniger succeeds W. Clark Gilpin, the Margaret E. Burton Professor in the Divinity School and the College, who has directed the school’s institute for advanced research in religion for the past three years.

    Gilpin will return to his research projects, which include a study of the “letter from prison” as a genre of religious literature, as well as a book on the ways the Christian tradition of writing have shaped major New England intellectuals of the 18th and 19th century.

    Doniger’s recent works include Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India; The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade; The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth; and the first accurate English translation of the legendary Kamasutra.

    Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School, remarked on Gilpin’s tenure as Director of the Martin Marty Center: “As facilitator of faculty research, as advisor to planners of conferences and colloquia, as director of its dissertation seminars, as steward to enhance the degree to which the center has contributed to the core missions of the Divinity School, in all these respects, Clark has been unexcelled.”

    Doniger plans to continue in the path Marty laid, focusing on American religious and public life. “Right now I’m the new girl in town, and I’m just trying to follow Clark around and learn how he did it,” she said. She noted that she hopes to expand the center’s international connections.

    An unintentional, but telling signal of the new direction the center may take came from two trips Doniger took this year to Senegal and Cuba.

    While in Senegal, anti-apartheid activist Breyten Breytenbach, who served for seven years in a South African prison, hosted Doniger’s visit. Breytenbach now runs the Institute for Peace on Senegal’s Gorée Island, where as many as 20 million enslaved Africans once boarded slave ships through Gorée’s infamous “Point of No Return” on their way to the Americas between the mid-1500s and the mid-1800s.

    Since the institute’s first conference in 1992—a major contribution to the downfall of apartheid in 1994—it continues to influence public opinion. The conference that Doniger attended, meeting with African leaders, discussed, she explained, “ways to promote native African forms of conflict resolution in political hot spots in Africa.”

    Doniger’s attention was called to socialist Cuba, a country where the role of religion is surprisingly important, through the program called Witness for Peace. Doniger stayed at the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, whose founder, Raul Suares, led a recent protest against the execution of dissidents.

    While President Bush preceded Doniger in Senegal, delivering a talk on racism there last year, it was Jesse Jackson whose footsteps Doniger followed on in Cuba. Doniger said that a sign of the international engagement of religion with politics was the way that the Rev. Jackson engaged Castro, with Suares, in a series of dialogues on the role of religion, and may have engineered a reversal of the longtime leader’s views.

    These juxtapositions—united by the theme of religion used as a voice for freedom—will set the tone for Doniger’s directorship.

    The Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion officially opened in October 1979, with Martin Marty, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School, as its director.

    Subsequent directors have been the medieval Christianity historian Bernard McGinn (1983—1992), the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School; Buddhist studies expert Frank Reynolds (1992—2000), Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School; and Gilpin (2001—2004), a scholar of American Christianity who retired the directorship Thursday, July 1.

    In 1998, the Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion was renamed the Martin Marty Center to honor its founding director. More information is available at http://marty-center.uchicago.edu.