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Shalom Goldman: Teaching With Sacred Stories

In time of conflict, new faculty member's studies show connections between major religions

Part of the Humanities Writ Large Series
Shalom Goldman draws about the stories of the great sacred texts to engage students. Photo: Les Todd, Duke University Photography
Shalom Goldman draws about the stories of the great sacred texts to engage students. Photo: Les Todd, Duke University Photography

In the beginning, Shalom Goldman didn't have much of a

Goldman began studying comparative religions while a
University of Wisconsin undergrad in the early 1970s, a time when that field
was considered less than a growth market.

Religion was an internal thing then, a relationship between
you and your God, not something discussed as loudly or publicly as it is today. 

Things have changed.

"When I started to study this, it was interesting to maybe
200 people in the world," says Goldman, a new addition to Duke's religion
faculty. "How do Muslims view Christians, how to Christians view
Jews, etc. Now, 30 to 40 years later, it has become part of the public sphere."

Goldman has carved out a niche as a student of the big three monotheistic
religions -- Christianity, Islam and Judaism. While many scholars study one or
more of those religions, Goldman has chosen to study the way the three relate,
overlap and differ.

"This branching out across traditional boundaries makes his
work, both in teaching and research, relevant to several colleagues in the
department and makes him a powerful resource for students of all levels," said
Lucas Van Rompay, the religion department chairman.

This fall, Goldman is teaching his first courses at Duke, an
undergrad examination of contemporary Jewish thought and a graduate course on
Christian Zionism springing from his latest book on that subject.

Goldman comes to Duke from Emory, where he spent 14 years on
the faculty there. He moves to Durham as one half of a package deal: his wife
is Laurie Patton, the new dean of the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.
She too holds a faculty appointment in the religion department.

Goldman grew up in New York City as an orthodox Jew for whom
religion was a central focal point of everyday life. He saw religion as a
communal force and a public issue, and he has spent a career following those

He teaches through tales. In his courses, he uses the great
stories of the Bible and the Quran to illustrate the ways and beliefs of
Christians, Jews and Muslims. His master's thesis compared the story of King Solomon
and the Queen of Sheba as it appears in the Quran and the Hebrew Bible.

(The Hebrew version is more about power and international
relations, Goldman reports. The Quran presents a more strictly religious
version of events.)

A religion's stories -- like Moses, and the Garden of Eden -- are
good teaching tools because they're well-told and compelling, and thus, broadly
influential, Goldman says.

"These texts govern behavior for many people," he says. "So
the way these stories are told influences behavior."

At Duke, students are in for a treat, said Susan
Henry-Crowe, dean of the chapel and religious life at Emory. Goldman won't be
hard for them to find, she says. At Emory, they looked no further than the
campus coffee joint, where Goldman was a ubiquitous presence, always reading
something, always taking notes, always willing to gab with students.

And in class, he's a scholarly dynamo, drawing from a deep
well of ideas and experiences, Henry-Crowe says.

"Sitting in a room with him is so intellectually
energizing," she says. "He knows how to pull in literature and religion and art
and opera, and he really sees how the connections of the mind and the universe
work. I find him spell-binding."

A decade ago, there was still relatively little interest
among scholars or the general public in the relationships between Islam,
Christianity and Judaism. The Sept. 11 terror attacks changed that, as the
government, military and man on the street struggled to come to terms with a
new, largely unknown presence: Islam.

Since then, the government and military has occasionally
come calling for advice and counsel. He's consulting now for the State
Department, which has asked for him to expound on ideas he presents in his 2010
book "Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews & the Idea of the Promised Land."

In it, Goldman raises the idea that Zionism, the political
movement for the return of Jews to their homeland, was of as much interest to
Christians as it was to Jews. One reason: Israel represents a western Democracy
not unlike America's. Further, Goldman believes Christians could identify with
Jews as a persecuted people. And  like
the homeland for Jews, the United States itself was founded as a promised land
of sorts, he notes.

At Duke, Goldman says he's excited to join a stellar faculty
and continue teaching subjects he was convinced would prove important -- even if
others long ago felt differently.

"I'm sorry my parents have passed on," he says. "I think
they often wondered what I was doing!"