Michael Penn

Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

Michael Penn, the William R. Kennan, Jr. Professor of Religion, has emerged as one of the most creative and original scholars of early Christianity and religious studies in the country. His range of academic expertise and his areas of intellectual passion are truly remarkable, indeed field-transforming. Michael arrived at Mount Holyoke, in 2002, with a PhD in religion from Duke in 1999, after studying molecular biology as an undergraduate at Princeton and receiving a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies from Duke. Since then he has published four books and some 20 articles, and has received national recognition for his groundbreaking scholarship, including an NEH Fellowship, a residency at the National Humanities Center, and a Guggenheim. 

He also has inspired our students, challenging them in various courses, from introductions to the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible, to such advanced courses as What Didn’t Make the Bible. “Michael Penn is a remarkably warm, engaging, intelligent, and thoughtful lecturer and instructor,” writes a student in that class. “He is very passionate about the subject,” observes another; he “tries extremely hard to infuse that passion into each student.” Professor Penn “knows what he is talking about inside and out,” recognizes yet another student. Based on his stunning record of scholarly achievement, Michael clearly knows what he is talking about, indeed.

Perhaps what marks Michael’s scholarship is a desire to challenge received opinion, above all to invite religious studies scholars to reconsider their modes of investigation, to rethink the questions they ask. Michael’s approach is truly interdisciplinary. In his study of early Christian rituals and boundary formation, Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), he draws on a range of theorists, above all in anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. As fellow scholars note with amazement, Michael’s command of secondary sources is comprehensive and definitive. To read a Michael Penn article is to witness a scholar in authoritative dialogue with a wide range of scholarly discourses over hundreds of years and in various languages. 

Michael’s more recent work, forthcoming this spring as Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), along with a sourcebook of early Syriac writings on Islam, When Christians First Met Muslims (University of California Press, 2015), deepens our understanding of early Christian-Muslim encounters in the thousand years beginning around 200 A.D. To accomplish this groundbreaking work, Michael has learned Syriac (joining only 200 other contemporary readers) and the Aramaic dialect of the Mesopotamian Christians, and has translated a host of texts (letters, histories, religious tracts) to argue that early Christian-Muslim “encounters” were much more fluid, interactive, and above all diverse than most religious and cultural history—including the so-called “clash of civilizations” model—might imagine. In this respect, Penn’s aim is nothing less than “to critique overly simplistic constructions of Christianity and Islam’s relationship with each other . . .”

In recognition of Michael Penn’s superb record of field-transforming scholarship centered in the cultures of early Christianity, we are thrilled to award him the Meribeth E. Cameron Award for 2015: an award richly deserved, for a scholar who continues to make a difference in how we understand religious history, in how we understand ourselves.