When Harry van der Linden, chair of the philosophy and religion department at Butler University, in Indianapolis, was browsing a registry of endowed funds last fall, he made a curious find: a chair in New Testament studies that had not been filled in over half a century. Immediately, James F. McGrath, an associate professor of religion who blogs about biblical studies, came to mind.
Mr. McGrath, 37, was installed last month as the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair of New Testament Language and Literature, making him the first person to hold the position since 1948.
"It was just listed there, a little paragraph, and it basically said that Mr. Goodwin had given money for this chair and the chair had been occupied one time," Mr. van der Linden says. "And then the story just stopped."
Marc Allan, a university spokesman, says that no one is sure why the position went unfilled for so long, and that the endowed funds were being used by the department. Mr. McGrath will now receive $2,500 each year for professional development.
Mr. McGrath teaches a popular introductory course on the Bible and advanced courses on the New Testament, but he has also been able to meld some of his side interests into the curriculum. This term he is teaching a course on science fiction and religion, which has tackled such questions as whether Darth Vader should have been forgiven in Star Wars. The course, Mr. McGrath jokes, was scheduled to "coincide with the final season of Lost," the science-fiction television series that explores spiritual themes. His students' excitement about the topics they consider is "mutually reinforcing," he says. Because they bring a range of views to the classroom, they all get a chance to confront new perspectives. A student told Mr. McGrath that he took the introductory Bible course "because the Bible was important to his grandmother and he wanted to be able to argue with her better."
Through discussion, students discover that there is no inherent conflict "between asking critical questions and exploring their deepest convictions," he says. "It may be troubling initially but is very rewarding and enriching."
As a young person, Mr. McGrath struggled with that friction himself. In high school, he decided to explore his personal faith through academic studies, though he did not imagine then that he would end up teaching religion. The knowledge he acquired challenged his faith in ways that he found difficult, to the point that he was "in danger of defending my view of the Bible from the Bible itself," he recalls.
A high-school trip to Ireland inspired him to pursue his studies in Britain. He earned a one-year diploma in religious studies from the University of Cambridge, followed by an undergraduate degree in divinity from the University of London and a doctorate from the University of Durham.
As his exploration of the Bible progressed, Mr. McGrath says he saw less of a gap between personal faith and scholarship. "I found the scholarly study of the Bible a lot less threatening than others sometimes have," he says.
His dissertation served as the basis for his first book, John's Apologetic Christology, which compares John's depiction of Jesus to those of the other New Testament authors. He is also the author of The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context, which explores whether the first Christians broke with Jewish monotheism.
After completing his degrees, Mr. McGrath spent three years teaching in Romania, where he says universities were struggling to build their religion faculties after restrictions on religious education under Communism were lifted. He next spent a year teaching at seminaries in New York and Pennsylvania before joining the Butler faculty in 2002.
The professor is now doing research on the Mandaeans, an ancient Gnostic group that survives to this day. Mr. McGrath says he is interested in the religion's positive portrayal of John the Baptist and negative portrayal of Jesus. He hopes to work with two of the most important sacred Mandaean texts and translate them into English, and although he has applied for a grant to pursue this project, he says funds from his chair could come in handy.
Mr. McGrath also hopes to use some of the money associated with his position to take his first-ever trip to Jerusalem and Galilee.
"It's something that anybody who teaches on anything related to the Bible ought to do, and I think that time might have finally arrived for me," he says.