Profile with Molly Zahn

Molly Zahn (Minnesota & Corpus Christi 2001) is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the  University of Kansas. She studies the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Near Eastern world and early Judaism and Christianity. Originally from Wisconsin, she earned her BA in Religious Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is trilingual and reads six ancient scriptural languages. She holds a PhD from the University of Notre Dame and has also studied in Tübingen (Germany) and Uppsala (Sweden).

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read for pleasure?

Molly Zahn: I just finished a Swedish novel by Per Olov Enquist, who is a quite famous modern Swedish author. My husband is from Sweden and I like to keep up with my language by reading. It is a very well-written historical novel based on the Pentecostal movement in Sweden in the early twentieth century. I study ancient Judaism but I am always interested in learning more about religious movements from different parts of history.

Rhodes Project: Why did you decide to study religion?

Molly Zahn: I grew up Roman Catholic in a church-going household and religion was important in my family. Then when I went to university I had a couple of experiences that made me aware that there was such a thing as the academic study of religion. I was involved in the Catholic students’ center and some of the staff introduced me to scholarly discussions about the historical Jesus and the composition of the Gospels – I had never thought about those issues before. At the same time I was taking a course on Greek mythology, which I initially took just as a filler course for my honours program. But it ended up being another spark for my interest in studying religion. The god Dionysus, for example, was believed to die every year and be resurrected. I had never known that there were other cultures that had a resurrection story. Those two experiences led me to take a variety of courses on the Bible and Greek religion, and the rest is history.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me something that your students have taught you?

Molly Zahn: I learn from them all the time. They constantly remind me of something I know also from my own experience, namely how significant and how real religion is in people’s lives. Many of my students are religious, some come from Christian backgrounds, some of them are Jewish or Muslim. And many are not religious at all. They have either moved away from the tradition they grew up with or are just not from a religious background. Yet they all have different ways of reading that are not necessarily natural for me. They remind me that the practice of reading, interpreting and drawing meaning is conditioned by your past. On a more practical level, I really enjoy having a chance to interact with young people at this particular stage when most of them are just discovering what it is to be an adult.

 Rhodes Project: What is the greatest challenge currently facing Religious Studies departments in higher education?

Molly Zahn: There are many challenges. More and more, higher education is being approached as something that needs to be results based or skills based. The humanities have to defend their relevance and I think Religious Studies is sometimes a poster child for that. You can just see parents saying, "Oh my God! My child is a Religious Studies major, what is she going to do with that?!" And in a way you understand – the difficulties in the economy, in getting jobs – it’s easy to see why people want to choose courses of study that seem to have a direct link to a job at the end. However, when you study religion in an academic context you are gaining skills and ways of reading, ways of approaching the world and processing information and communicating, that will allow you to be successful in many lines of work. It’s not as straightforward as studying education and then becoming a teacher; the argument is a little more subtle.

Religious Studies has to work to make a better argument for itself and continue to build relationships with colleagues and the broader community. Even some of my colleagues in other departments don’t always have a sense of what the academic study of religion really is. More generally, people think that somehow there is a normative component to what we do; that we’re advocates of a particular tradition. We have to say, look, religion is such an important force in our society, we see it everywhere, so it ought to be an object of study and here are some of the payoffs of that study.

Rhodes Project: You can read and understand a remarkable number of ancient languages: Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, Akkadian and Ugaritic. Which one is your favorite and why?

Molly Zahn: I’d have to say Hebrew is my favorite. I’m most familiar with it and the more I have studied it, the more I have come to appreciate its beauty in the Hebrew Bible and in other ancient texts. It is such an economical language, but with great depth of meaning. Every language has its beauty, though; Greek is much more abstract, for instance. There is an old saying that good philosophy can only be done in German or Greek, because of their capacity to express abstract meaning.

Rhodes Project: What did you find most surprising about Oxford?

Molly Zahn: The most pleasant surprise was how diverse it was, especially the post-graduate population. People were literally there from all over the world, and I hadn't realized that would be the case. It was wonderful.

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in life?

Molly Zahn: Maybe balance. I take satisfaction from my research. I find tremendous joy in those moments when I can see my students learning something, growing or gaining new perspective. I love to be outside in nature, either one of the places around here in Kansas, or back in my home in the Upper Midwest, or wherever I happen to be. I play viola in the Topeka Symphony and those musical moments bring me immense happiness. For any one aspect of my life, if it were the only thing I did, then it would be too much. I had the opportunity to go into professional music but I realized it wouldn’t have made me happy if I did it all the time. It's really the combination of all these things that brings me joy.

Rhodes Project: You have lived and studied in Europe. What is your favorite thing about travel?

Molly Zahn: I have perhaps travelled less than many Rhodes scholars, but I have enjoyed the opportunities I have had to go somewhere far from home and immerse myself there. You can see how different cultures work and get a sense for their nuance, share in that and become part of a place. I have family in Germany and Sweden and I treasure my experiences exploring those places as more of an insider.

Rhodes Project: Is there anything that consistently frustrates you?

Molly Zahn: I wish that people appreciated education more consistently, what it means and the impact it can have. The lack of appreciation sometimes can come from students who are nineteen years old and don’t understand what the point of college is apart from to get that piece of paper. Or it can come from national or state governments that aren’t investing in education in the way I think we need to be. It goes back to what I said about the humanities, this focus on results and the tendency to prioritize only what seems useful in the short term. This is a political statement, I realize, but also a cultural one. I don't think in most cases we can blame individuals for this. In the current economic situation I can't blame my students for worrying about getting a job, and I don’t blame legislators for wanting to see concrete results. But often there's a short-sightedness or narrowness of thought that doesn't see how transformative learning for its own sake can be, and the dividends that it pays down the road for individuals and for communities. I think this is part of a broader societal attitude of short-term thinking,  which has negative consequences not just for education, but for sustainable development, environmental protection, and lots of other issues. I suppose it's really that attitude that frustrates me and that I try to work to help shift.

Rhodes Project: What do you see yourself doing in 10 years time?

Molly Zahn: I hope to be in a similar situation to where I am now. I'm very happy at Kansas. I love teaching and I love research, and I feel grateful to be in a situation where both are an important part of my job. I hope to keep making a difference for my students and finding ways to translate my research to a broader audience outside the classroom. At some point I hope to get a chance to do some less technical writing alongside my scholarly publications. Basically, I hope for a more established and advanced version of what I’m doing now.

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