At Pomona College, students from all disciplines are encouraged to undertake research. Some apply for funded focused summer research through the Summer Undergraduate Research Program. Below are recent projects completed by students in the Religious Studies Department.


Representing the Holocaust in Children's Literature

Alexandra Kelly (2015); Mentor(s): Oona Eisenstadt

Abstract: How can children’s literature – characterized by a tendency to employ dangerously teleological scripts of trauma and triumph – address the Holocaust, ethical treatment of which necessarily resists assimilation of the event into redemptory narratives valorizing suffering? To answer this question, I read the work of such proponents of “anti-redemptive” historiography as James Young and Saul Friedlander while familiarizing myself with the fields of Holocaust studies and modern Jewish philosophy. I studied the ideas of Perry Nodelman and other children’s literature theorists, as well as the existing scholarship on Holocaust children’s literature. Next, I read 70 topical picture books, chapter books, and young adult novels published between 1973 and 2012, noting the age group of the “target audiences”, nationalities of the authors and implied readers, and other factors in assessing differences. Intrigued by Young’s analyses of art installations that indirectly represent the horrors, intrude into everyday life, and spark inter-generational conversation, I’ve concluded that the most compelling and least objectionable examples of Holocaust children’s literature are those penned by Maurice Sendak, who draws upon irony and symbolism to create self-reflexive, multilayered unions of text and illustration that invite rereading at all stages of development. Currently, I am drafting an article expounding upon this idea, with the eventual goal of publication this year or early next.
Funding provided by National Endowment for the Humanities

Opening the Mind's Eye: Visual Stimuli in Tibetan Buddhist Meditation

Alec Terrana (2014); Mentor(s): Zhiru Ng

Abstract: Among the many schools of Buddhism, Tibetan Vajrayana boasts the most extensive and multi¬layered use of iconographic representations of the transcendent. The most widely used form of imagery in Tibetan Buddhism is the thangka, a painted scroll that generally depicts a mandala or a bodhisattva, which is used as a guide to meditation. These thangkas serve as mental supports to the process of generating complex visualizations, imprinting philosophical concepts into meditators’ minds by helping them transition from the grosser levels of visual comprehension to increasingly subtle stages of understanding. Nearly every aspect of a thangka carries symbolic significance and a message, which serve as a form of visual scripture of the teachings of the Buddha. Through deep examination and intense focus, these symbols guide practitioners into their own minds, aiding them in the process of enacting paradigmatic shifts in perception. Additionally, as practitioners become more experienced in working with complex visualizations, the sacred symbols take on the further function of enabling meditators to perform physiological changes as well, changes that closely correlate to spiritual advancement. Through the example of the Kalacakra mandala and Tantric deity, we can gain a more precise look at the multiple levels on which these visual aids to meditation operate, revealing a highly developed tool for psychological and physiological transformation.
Funding provided by National Endowment for the Humanities

N.T. Wright and Dualism

Ryan Stewart (2014); Mentor(s): Kenneth Wolf

Abstract: One of the classic questions of Western religion is whether or not the universe, and indeed the human person, has a spiritual “superstructure.” Either this world is completely devoid of any spiritual dimension or reality or there is a distinct spiritual element, separate from our body and world—perhaps a “soul” or a “heaven.” In this “dualism,” the “material” and “spiritual” are completely opposed and separate. When applied to religion, dualism suggests a hierarchy that devalues the material in favor of the spiritual. My research investigates how N.T. Wright, a contemporary Christian theologian, criticizes dualism. Focusing on 2nd Temple Judaism, Wright’s work seeks to recover a historically accurate understanding of early Christianity, especially the Pauline epistles. In his view, a material-spiritual hierarchy would not have made sense to early Christians. Rather, any Christian theology rooted in its “Jewishness” should reject the devaluation of the material in favor of the spiritual. I argue that Wright’s understanding of Judaism, Eschatology, Philosophical Anthropology, and Soteriology all develop as a reaction to dualism. I have three conclusions. First, Wright’s anti-dualism is nothing new when set within the Christian tradition. Second, Wright’s entire theological project can be understood as a reaction to dualism. Third, this anti-dualistic theology has significant implications for vocational callings and environment responsibility.
Funding provided by National Endowment for the Humanities


The Tanach Project: An Online Platform for Collaborative Analysis of the Hebrew Bible

Rina Sadun (2014); Mentor(s): Erin Runions

Abstract: Studying the Hebrew Bible often relies on careful analysis of the text’s wording and grammatical construction, which can be cryptic and open to multiple interpretations. Although millennial of scholarship have produced an abundance of interpretations, it is still difficult to compare a variety of sources for individual words and verses, even with existing digital databases. This project entails design and preliminary programming for a new website called The Tanach Project, which seeks to aid biblical study by providing a collaborative platform for compiling sources and adding new textual analysis. In addition to letting users tag verses with citations of published commentaries that reference them, the site provides a detailed rubric that users can use to tag individual words based on over 20 grammatical elements including root, stem, and prefixes. Other users will then be able to search these tags to analyze word usage and identify patterns based on grammatical elements.
Funding provided by Pomona College SURP