March 22, 2004

Holifield to deliver Distinguished Faculty Lecture

By Michael Terrazas

Brooks Holifield had to pick the topic for his upcoming Distinguished Faculty Lecture months in advance, but when it came to thinking of what he would actually say, he started to worry. Thankfully, the Georgia state school superintendent came to the rescue.

"[Superintendent] Kathy Cox saved me when she raised all this fuss about the teaching of evolution in public schools," Holifield said of Cox's much-publicized recommendation--and subsequent backtracking--that Georgia schools not mention the word "evolution" in science instruction on the origins of Homo sapiens.

Holifield, Charles Howard Candler Professor of American Church History in the Candler School of Theology, will deliver his lecture on Thursday, March 25, on "The Odd Couple: Theology and Science in the American Tradition." The event will be held at 4 p.m. in Winship Ballroom.

"The language [Cox] used was the language of evolution as 'theory,'" Holifield continued. "That distinction, between evolution as theory and evolution as fact, has been part of this debate for a long time, and I wanted to find out as a historian, where did that come from? What's the origin of that distinction as it relates to the question of science and religion in America?"

Conventional wisdom might hold that the ongoing debate about teaching evolution in public schools shows that American fundamentalist theologians reject the authority of modern science--but Holifield plans to argue exactly the opposite point in his address.

"Both implicitly and explicitly, theologians have in surprising ways accepted the authority of natural science, though they've understood that authority in quite different ways," he said. "In fact, it has been the fundamentalists' acceptance of the normative authority of natural science that has led to the struggles over the teaching of evolution in the American public school system."

Holifield said he will trace the origins of this phenomenon back to the early 19th century and describe how it has "evolved" over the subsequent two centuries of American history.

Saying he was "deeply honored--and a little bit nervous" about being chosen as the 2004 Distinguished Faculty Lecturer, Holifield will be the ninth Emory faculty member so honored. Last year's address was delivered by Claire Sterk, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education.

Holifield, a Candler faculty member since 1970, holds scholarly interests in 17th century Puritanism, the antebellum South, religion and psychology in America, health and medicine in the Methodist traditions, and the cultural history of early colonial America. His most recent book, Theology in America: Christian Thought From the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War, was published last year by Yale University Press.

"[That book] is being lauded as the definitive book on religious thought in America," said Professor John Snarey, a Candler colleague of Holifield's and current chair of Faculty Council, which sponsors the Distinguished Faculty Lecture. "We all regard Brooks as one of the stars in the School of Theology, but it is his modesty--and unusual sense of humor--that makes him so special."