Willamette University, Students at the Mill Stream

Religious topics probed through lunch lecture series

After author and scholar Reza Aslan released his book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” he was interviewed on Fox News.

It began as a harmless interview. But when the reporter continuously questioned Aslan’s interest in Jesus — since he identifies as a Muslim — the event became one of the most watched and controversial videos in recent news.

In the midst of the heat, Willamette University Chaplain Karen Wood invited Stephen J. Patterson, a religious and ethical studies professor at Willamette University, to discuss the controversy at the Big Questions Over Lunch Series in early October.

“We asked professor Patterson to speak on this topic for a number of reasons,” Wood says. “He is an exceedingly distinguished scholar and historian of religion, this is his area of expertise, and he is enormously gifted at discussing the origins of Christianity in challenging, engaging and accessible ways.”

Program's origins

The series is the latest version of a program that started on campus in 1975. The program, known as “The School of Theological Studies,” consisted of classes held throughout the semester. It was part of the Chaplain’s educational outreach to the community.

“It is a long-standing commitment by the Office of the Chaplains to provide outreach and education on a wide range of ethical, spiritual and religious topics of interest to the community,” Wood says.

Brought back in the spring of 2013, the free and revised program is designed to shed light on religious debates and create a space to discuss them. The discussion-based sessions are scheduled during the lunch hour, and three or four gatherings are planned each semester.

Wood says she hopes Big Questions Over Lunch will reach more students, staff, faculty and community members.

Past lecture topics include “In the Garden of Eden: What Happened,” “Was Jesus Married? Reflections on ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ Papyrus,” “Mormon Identity in the 21st Century-What has Changed?” and “Jewish Humor: If I Didn’t Laugh, I’d Cry.”

Since Patterson gave a presentation last year on the papyrus fragment that speaks of Jesus having a wife, Wood says she was delighted he agreed to speak again.

By attending the lectures, she hopes students gain a new perspective on religious topics.

“I think that they benefit from a scholar's perspective on how the gospels were constructed, some context of the place of this topic of Jesus as Zealot in the scholarly literature, and an opportunity to think more deeply about the ways in which popular portrayals of Jesus have an impact on society,” Wood says.  

Wood says Willamette is a wonderful environment for such projects.

“What better place than Willamette to foster inquiry and conversation about the origins and texts of religious traditions that have had and continue to exert enormous impact on our world?” she says.

Upcoming lecture:

• On Nov. 5, chair of the politics department David Gutterman will lecture on “None of the Above: The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated Citizens and the Future of the United States.” The event will take place in Dining Rooms one and two in Cat Cavern from 11:45 a.m. - 12:45 p.m.


• Story by Natalie Pate '15, politics major