Shalom Goldman: Teaching With Sacred Stories

Shalom Goldman: Teaching With Sacred Stories

Durham, NC - In the beginning, Shalom Goldman didn't have much of a future.

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 department 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 principles.

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!"