About the author, Joanne M. Swenson, Th.D.

Joanne M. Swenson, Th.D.

The aesthetic dimensions of congregational life have been my research and writing focus since 1992, when I began working with Linda Clark, the Houghton Scholar of Church Music at Boston University, on a Lilly-sponsored study of the culture of churches.  We have presented our findings in seminars and jointly-authored publications, the most recent of which is, The Altar-Aesthetic as ‘Work of the People (included in Music in Christian Worship, Charlotte Kroeker, ed.). Our research methodology has been in the tradition of “congregational studies”—participant observers in congregations, supplemented by congregational histories, surveys and individual and group interviews. My particular emphasis has been theological, explicating and critiquing the theological pictures conveyed through sermons, prayers, informal mentions of God, and the non-verbal but reference-rich materials of congregational life, such as buildings, music, styles of gathering, etc.   Although Linda Clark is not listed as a co-author of this blog, her insights, scholarly citations and some of her phrases are essential aspects of my own thinking and writing.

My 1993 Harvard dissertation described and critiqued the use of the symbol resurrection by members of three Protestant congregations.  I chose this symbol because it stands at the heart of Christian theology, shaping understandings of Christ’s meaning and life’s destiny.  I wanted to understand if resurrection was being used more as a metaphor than a literally-referring symbol by modern parishioners. To my great surprise, I discovered that resurrection had a strong metaphorical life only for those parishioners who believed it was literally true.  Those parishioners who were skeptical about the literal truth of the resurrection story and promise were resistant to using the symbol, even metaphorically.  In light of the liberal trend to desacralize the Bible as simply a collection of stories and metaphors, this finding is troubling for my liberal denomination, the United Church of Christ (in which I was ordained in 1982, and went on to serve two congregations as a pastor).  Creative, vital and metaphorical use of the Bible depends upon its behind held to be certain, in Wittgenstein’s sense of the term, a trusted grounding out of which to risk and act.  (The Louisville Institute for the Study of Protestantism and American Culture supported the research phase of my dissertation.)

In addition to the Doctor of Theology, I also hold a Master of Divinity and a Master of Theology, all  from Harvard University.

Published on June 30, 2010 at 12:58 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Your descriptions/discussions of the various churches in Portland are fascinating! I came across your blogs in looking up 2LEARN@LEARN, since my nephew (who lives not too far from you) is involved in similar activities with adults–now with a single company in Texas.

    Keep the faith!

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