Susan Ackerman ’80 on the Phenomenon of Religion

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Susan Ackerman

(Photo by Rob Strong ’04)

By Dana Cook Grossman

The Dartmouth Professor Talks: Susan Ackerman ’80, the Preston H. Kelsey Professor of Religion, is also a professor of Jewish studies and of women’s and gender studies and the author of three books about the religions of ancient Israel. She recently spoke with Dartmouth Now about her work, her taste in mysteries, and what about her surprises people.

Do people have misconceptions about what you do?
Yes—people assume if you’re a religion professor, your work involves professions of faith. But at a secular institution, that would be inappropriate. My work involves religion as a phenomenon in every human community throughout history. To understand who we are as humans, we need to understand religion—without necessarily adhering to a particular religious tradition.

What’s your area of expertise?
The Israel of 3,000 to 2,500 years ago. That’s the Israel that produced much of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament. The Bible didn’t emerge in a cultural vacuum, so it’s important to understand the issues of that time and place.

What are some of those issues?
The Bible was produced by elites—priestly elites, prophetic elites, and scribal elites. So the religion of biblical Israel, formulated by these elites, is narrower than the religion of ancient Israel generally. An analogy today is that the Vatican disapproves of birth control, but big percentages of Catholics use birth control. I’m interested in things that the biblical writers castigated the Israelites for, but that the Israelites felt were important parts of their religious expression.

Can you give an example?
It was a common religious belief in the ancient world that gods have consorts; Mesopotamian gods had consorts, Egyptian gods had consorts, so a lot of Israelites believed their God should have a consort, too. But the biblical writers were more staunchly monotheistic. Another example is that the elites were almost exclusively male, so weren’t especially interested in women’s religious experiences or rituals.

You graduated from Dartmouth as a religion major in 1980 and returned as a faculty member in 1990. What drew you back?
I was teaching at the University of Arizona when I got invited to interview at Dartmouth. I was very happy professionally, so never imagined I’d take a job here. I thought, “This is just for fun; it’s my alma mater.” Then two things came together. First, I hated Tucson. I was hot all the time; it wasn’t like anywhere I’d ever lived.

I grew up in Arkansas, which is hot but green; Arizona is just sand and cactus. The second thing is when I came to interview, all my teachers instantly switched to treating me as a colleague, not a student. The idea that I could be a colleague of these people—who’d made me fundamentally who I was—was irresistible.

The titles of your books contain words like “seductress” and “Eros.” In religion, how does erotic love relate to more chaste notions of love?
When the New Testament talks about love, it’s mostly chaste love—the relationship between God and the church or Jesus and his followers. One reason I love the Old Testament is it’s much more earthy. For example, King David was quite a lusty guy.

What do you hope students learn from your courses?
I have two mantras. The first is “There’s no such thing as ‘The Bible says . . .’ ” You hear pontifications like “the Bible says homosexuality is wrong.” I want students to learn that the Bible a collection of books written by many authors over a thousand-year period. It’s naive to believe it says just one thing.

And your second mantra?
That the Bible was generated within a particular historical, economic, social, and political context that matters in understanding it. It contains certain timeless moral truths, but it shouldn’t be read in a timeless way.

Does your research affect your teaching?
They’re closely intertwined, especially if I’m still trying to figure something out. But I almost never assign students to read anything I’ve written. That’s because my courses are mostly discussion based, and I want students to dig into an author’s argument and pull it apart. If the author is assigning them a grade, that’s hard.

What kind of non-work reading do you enjoy?
Junky mysteries, mostly British. Nothing violent—more the Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie kind of thing.

Lord Peter Wimsey.
Exactly. “Let’s have a martini and figure everything out over drinks.” I was in Edinburgh last fall on the religion Foreign Study Program and miss Edinburgh, so I’ve been reading Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series.

Is there anything about you that surprises people?
My students are surprised to learn that I’m fairly whimsical; I think they read me as stern and somber. They’re surprised, for example, by the names of my dogs.

Which are?
My now-deceased dog was Delilah, and my current dog is Jezebel.

Any other non-work activities?
Gardening. I started as a vegetable gardener in graduate school. Then in 1996, I started trying to grow perennials. I’m still a miserable failure at coordinating various bloom cycles with various plant heights and various plant colors so that my garden always looks good. Balancing those permutations is challenging—but interesting. As a vegetable gardener, I’m not learning anything new. But as a perennial gardener, I’m still a learner. That’s what professors are—students who never grew up.

The interview has been edited and condensed.