Religious Studies Scholar Shepardson on the Fast Track for Success

Dr. Tina ShepardsonDr. Tina Shepardson has a lot to celebrate. The past two years have been particularly rewarding for the associate professor of early Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies. She has published her first book, received tenure at UT Knoxville, and been awarded numerous grants to support her travel abroad to conduct research. In 2009 she was honored with the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Fellowship, a prestigious grant awarded to scholars nationwide for excellence in research in the humanities and related social sciences, which allowed her to take research leave for the 2009/2010 academic year and work full-time on her second book: Controlling Contested Places: Fourth-Century Antioch and the Spatial Politics of Religious Controversy. 

Shepardson received a Ph.D. from Duke University in 2003 and came to UTK in the fall that same year. Her many honors are evidence of the stature of her research, which she described “examines the power dynamics involved in the early history of Christianity, and their significant implications for today.”  She seeks answers to such questions as: Who helped to shape the doctrines and traditions of Christianity?  How did a religion that included women leaders, teachings that subverted the Roman family, and models of self-suffering develop the male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church, the family values of the Religious Right, and the persecuting laws of medieval Christian Europe? 

“To study the history of early Christianity,” Shepardson said, “is to enter an intriguing and complex world of piety and politics that continue to influence our world.”

Shepardson’s interest and scholarship in early Christianity led her to publish her first book Anti-Judaism and Christian Orthodoxy: Ephrem’s Hymns in Fourth-Century Syria in 2008, which examines Ephrem, a fourth-century church leader from Syria, and the role his sharp anti-Jewish language played in an intra-Christian theological struggle. This book, along with an extensive list of published research articles and presentations of her research at national and international conferences, was an important consideration in her earning tenure at UTK. Her scholarly activities are too numerous to list, but can be viewed in detail at http://web.utk.edu/~religion/faculty/shepardsonCV.pdf.      

Her current book project focuses on the fourth-century city of Antioch (modern day Antakya, Turkey). In it, Shepardson discloses how the politics of controlling contested places in and around the city of Antioch helped shape the theological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries. As one of the Roman Empire’s largest and most important cities, Antioch offers an unusual opportunity to understand how leaders physically and rhetorically manipulated their local landscape in order to shift power dynamics in their favor.  Whether building new churches, demolishing pagan shrines, or demonizing Jewish synagogues, Christian leaders actively shaped their city to strengthen Christianity. 

Shepardson hopes that this investigation “should lead to fruitful revelations about the processes of early Christianization and the definition of religious orthodoxy, and should broaden our awareness of the politics and power of topographical description and control in other contested places.”

Not only is Shepardson’s scholarship in early Christianity appreciated by the College of Arts and Sciences, but her research has also piqued national interest. Research funding is essential for Shepardson’s work, and fortunately, her research has attracted national support in a competitive field.  In addition to receiving the ACLS Fellowship, Shepardson was awarded two grants from the American Academy of Religion in 2009 and 2010, as well as a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend in 2008 and a Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society in 2008. These grants allowed her pursue her research on early Christianity, particularly in Turkey and Syria, though she has also found other opportunities to travel more broadly around Europe, including a memorable trip to Rome.

“Having studied and written about the Roman world for years, it was very useful and meaningful for me finally to see for the first time so many of the sites and artifacts that are still visible there,” she said, speaking of her trip to Rome. “The visit to the early Christian section of the Vatican museum, and the trip to the ancient port city of Ostia were particularly educational and influential in both my research and teaching.”  Shepardson has been invited to present her research at conferences in Oxford, Paris and numerous cities nationwide.

Although Shepardson is passionate about her scholarship and learning more about her research interests, she is equally passionate about her classroom teaching.  She is eager to integrate the images and information about Christian history that she has gathered from her new research and travels into her courses. In teaching about the history of early Christianity, she demonstrates the effects that early Christian arguments continue to have in the modern world, as well as the rich diversity of early Christian history.

Shepardson still finds time to remain active around campus and in the community. On campus, she continues to chair and coordinate the Faculty Research Seminar on “The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity,” which is funded from the UT Humanities Initiative and the Marco Institute.  This seminar continues to thrive since its inception in 2005 and provides top-level interdisciplinary discussion of new scholarship in the field of “Late Antiquity” among faculty and graduate students on campus.    

Shepardson also volunteers her time to present several lectures each semester to community groups that are always interested in her research.  She enjoys teaching about early Christian history, the New Testament, Christian anti-Judaism, sexuality and gender in Christianity, and the politics of biblical interpretation.  She is taking full advantage of her opportunity to research and write full-time while she is on leave this year, but she keeps in touch with many of her students and looks forward to returning to teaching in August 2010.

When there is time to take a break from her research and teaching, how does Shepardson enjoy spending her time? Well, you might find her on a canoe trip in the Canadian arctic or enjoying one of her countless hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains.

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