Hugh W. Nibley’s legacy continues to inspire Latter-day Saints who value religious scholarship. As the Chair of the Maxwell Institute’s Nibley Fellowship Program, it has been my pleasure to become familiar with promising young scholars who trace their intellectual yearnings in part back to Dr. Nibley. I’ve invited some of them to reflect on their experiences studying religion in the academy. In this post, Courtney Innes discusses her interest in studying textual and material studies. See other “Nibley Fellow Reflections” here. —Kristian Heal
The momentum that launched me into a current of academic study started when I was young. During family road trips, I was exposed to the Native American ruins of Mesa Verde and the wonders of ancient cultures found within the Smithsonian Institute. I remember being fascinated by the mummies in the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose. Those ancient artifacts and sites drove my imagination into a bygone world that gave birth to a curiosity of times past. My inquisitiveness morphed into a passion for archaeology, an exploration of society, culture, arts, and living from antiquity.
Initially, I burst through the front door of the study of archaeology by filling my mind with osteology, excavations, archaeological technique, ceramic analysis, conservation, etc. Unexpectedly, however, the door of opportunity opened widely for me – it was a portal that brought me to a body of knowledge that connected the past with the present. I found myself in a Jewish-Christian Relations program at the University of Cambridge that used the context of culture, history, and religion to show the spectrum of interactions and impacts on Jewish-Christian relations. This course of study was the gateway that led me to land smack dab in the middle of a doctoral program in Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia. I study religion because I find that religion is a thread that has woven its way through all ages and all cultures. It is a medium in which I can understand the lives and practices of people of the past.
I’m very grateful for my graduate experiences. One of the things I’m most grateful is simply living to tell the tale. I’m not going to sugarcoat it: grad school is brutal, yet it’s a blessing. I’m grateful for the support I’ve received, both financial and academic. Without funding, particularly from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, I would not have been able to pursue academic opportunities that exposed me to the intense regiment for academic analysis and writing—being an intern for the Israeli Antiquities Authority for archaeological conservation; developing networks with world class scholars at the University of Cambridge and the University of British Columbia, etc. Doors of opportunities have been opened to me as I actively stay involved with the field of archaeology and religion. I have been fortunate enough to encounter professors who have reached out to me and have encouraged and fueled my academic pursuits (such as Kerry Muhlestein, Jeff Chadwick, and Paul Kerry of BYU, Rune Nyord from Cambridge, and Thomas Schneider from UBC).
Within the past year, I have conducted research in how religious symbolism in the form of architecture and art, and found in scripture, supports memory and consciousness of a religion’s principles and doctrine. I will present my paper in early May at a conference in Vancouver called “Total Recall: The Manipulation of Memory in the Ancient World.” I read widely in various fields of scholarship as it’s important to acknowledge and understand numerous disciplines and perspectives taken to my area of focus. It is my goal to bridge the barrier between textual and material studies.
With the support of the Maxwell Institute, I, as a graduate student, am able to carry my insights and knowledge regarding the scriptures into an academic arena. By doing so, I can garner goodwill and mutual respect among people from different faiths. With the assistance of the Institute, I’m able to continue my scholarly study of religious traditions, including ancient languages, ancient texts pertaining to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and archaeological endeavors, which otherwise would not be possible. I believe that the more opportunities LDS graduate students have, the more the academic community will come to respect the scholarship of LDS scholars. Because of the opportunities the Institute has opened to me, I’ve presented my research at conferences pertaining to religion and archaeology in Poland, Ireland, Israel, Canada, and elsewhere. In doing so, I demonstrate the possibility of a fruitful relationship between intellect, scholarship, and faith. Most importantly, such venues facilitate interactions with representatives of world religions.
Hugh Nibley was not only a scholar par excellence for his time—he is the quintessential promoter of academic excellence whose legacy bids me upward as well as forward. His passion for reaching for the truth, even hidden truth, set the bar of scholarly attainment high. And now, a decade after his passing, his devotion to scriptural research continues to call LDS scholars to the highest standards of academia. Because of the Nibley Fellowship Award, not only am I given the opportunity to encounter things that would otherwise be out of reach, but I’m also constantly reminded of the expectations of achievement that are attendant to my acceptance of such an award. For Nibley’s example, and for the assistance I receive in his name, I am grateful. My aspiration is to further expand the body of knowledge pertaining to the scriptures of antiquity while adding to the understanding of their cultural contexts.
Courtney J. Innes is a PhD Student at the University of British Columbia. Her research explores religion by combining insight from material and textual studies, focusing especially on the parting of the ways of late antique Judaism and Christianity. Her archeological interests have already resulted in a fascinating publication on the Jewish Synagogues and cemeteries in the Fayum, taken from her Cambridge University dissertation. This summer she plans on excavating a Roman villa in Sicily, Italy. She has previously worked in Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.