Introducing Rebekah Lamb: ITIA’s Newest Lecturer

Transpositions is pleased to welcome Rebekah Lamb as Lecturer in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. We recently had the opportunity to chat with Rebekah about her background, rooted in Canada, and her future here across the Atlantic:

Originally born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Rebekah was most recently based at the University of Toronto as a Gilson post-doctoral fellow at the University of St Michael’s College. In addition to researching, she taught in the newly developed Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas, founded by USMC’s current principal and vice-president, Randy Boyagoda, to honour the intellectual and spiritual legacy of Etienne Gilson, who co-founded the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (PIMS) at the University of Toronto.

Tutoring in the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas, Rebekah covered a wide range of topics and genres centring around the history of the Christian intellectual tradition and its engagement with politics, science, literature, theology, and ecology. Works ranged from Augustine’s Confessions to excerpts from The Divine Comedy, from George Miller’s most recent Mad Max: Fury Road to Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness and Laudato Si’ (Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment). One of the highlights of the post for Rebekah was co-facilitating a two-week seminar in Rome. The city served as the classroom where students could see theological, scientific, and cultural ideas made concrete with visits to sites like the Basilica of San Clemente and the Vatican Observatory.

Her current research centres around the theological aesthetics of boredom, with Pre-Raphaelite art and poetry as case studies and a focus in the early writings of Evelyn Waugh and G K Chesterton. Rebekah’s book project is set for release in 2020 with McGill-Queen’s University Press and is titled Suspended in Time: Boredom and Other Discontents in the Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle.

First Inklings about ITIA

Rebekah first heard about ITIA at a conference in Oxford on C S Lewis and George MacDonald where she met Kirsten Jeffrey Johnson, who had completed her doctorate on George MacDonald under the supervision of Trevor Hart at ITIA.

Rebekah continued to follow ITIA during her postgraduate studies at the University of Western Ontario, where she completed a doctorate in Victorian poetry and art (with a secondary focus in twentieth-century literature) under the supervision of D M R Bentley and her second reader, Chris Keep. While there she increasingly developed an interest in the idea of the devotional imagination and the influence of medieval sources on Victorian, modern, and contemporary conceptions of time and everyday life and living. In a recent conversation, she commented that she is excited to be at ITIA since studies in Religion and Literature are more advanced in the UK than elsewhere and the work done at ITIA is central to its further development. ‘I’m delighted to be at a place that takes the mutual significance of religious experience and the arts seriously, seeing the ways in which faith extends the horizons of what can be said about, and done with and through, the arts and vice versa’.

Research Visit in March 2018

Rebekah’s interests in ITIA were further cultivated during a recent research visit: While here in St Andrews in early 2018 as a visiting researcher, I was delighted to participate in (among other things) the Friday ITIA Research Seminars. Not only for their worth in themselves but because I had known about them while in Toronto and had indeed recently modelled an undergraduate and post-graduate Colloquium [which was funded by the Gilson Seminar Program] at U of T on the ITIA Research Seminar’. The colloquium examined the nature of the imagination as handled and explored in a variety of disciplines, from social work to education, and from religious studies to literature. The colloquium, titled Divine, Human, Machine: The Imagination, Its Possibilities, and Its Limits, was particularly invested in considering the imagination’s importance and status in not only the arts but also for STEM disciplines. She owes the initial inspiration for this colloquium to ITIA.

During her visit, she presented research from her current book project at an ITIA seminar. The presentation, ‘Suspended in Time’: The Pre-Raphaelites, Christina Rossetti and the Problem of Boredom, which included a survey of the emerging field of boredom studies and an examination of theological and biblical themes in some Pre-Raphaelite paintings, was compelling and proved a favourite seminar of some in ITIA. In particular, ITIA postgraduate Joel Clarkson commented:

Dr Lamb brings an undeniably multifaceted and invigorating research background to ITIA, from Pre-Raphaelite art and poetry to liturgy and Christian Personalism, to Chesterton studies. But equally exciting is her unique gift for warm and winsome intellectual cultivation through her teaching, which ITIA postgrads saw in action during her seminar presentation on Pre-Raphaelite poetry and boredom in the Spring of 2018, a community favourite during the year; and which she is already putting to use now in her weekly Dante reading group in the St Andrews Catholic Society. In both her participation in the ITIA community and in her continued research, I have no doubt Dr Lamb will be an incredible resource to both ITIA and the wider divinity world at St Andrews.

Looking forward to life in St Andrews

Rebekah has specifically been inspired by Judith Wolfe’s work on Heidegger and is delighted to be colleagues with Gavin Hopps, George Corbett, and Judith here at ITIA, and with the vibrant St Mary’s scholarly community as a whole. 

The feeling is mutual. ITIA Director Gavin Hopps had this to say: ‘We were delighted to be able to bring Rebekah on board this summer. Her expertise in literature and theology enriches our existing strengths in this area and her infectiously enthusiastic teaching will, I am sure, excite a wider interest in theology and the arts’.

Academically, Rebekah is looking forward to working with St Mary’s undergraduates and postgraduates, and continuing her work in the theological aesthetics of boredom and other developing projects—such as a study of the ‘devotional imagination’ in the art and writings of Michael O’Brien (with whom she had the pleasure of co-running a survey of Fine Arts course while teaching at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Canada, prior to her move to Toronto).

As mentioned by Clarkson, Rebekah is also enjoying leading a Dante reading group, open to all undergraduates and postgraduates, at Canmore Catholic Chaplaincy throughout this academic year.

Personally, Rebekah is enjoying discovering St Andrews and the area. She is fascinated with the way medieval St Andrews accommodates the modern, ‘seemingly allowing the contemporary to visit for a while as opposed to overtake the town’s fascinating, complex medieval past’. She is particularly enamoured with living by the sea, and is becoming a frequent runner, spurred on by the coastal scenery she can enjoy on the way! Inspired by the coastal area, she commented that ‘so much of the poetry I love makes more sense here— The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, for example’.

Her interests in the UK reach beyond the East Neuk of Scotland; a visit to Lindisfarne is at the top of her list and she is heading to Dublin shortly to finally make a pilgrimage to the grave of her favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (he’s the reason she decided to pursue postgraduate studies in religion and literature in the first place).

Fun Facts about Rebekah

As impressive as Rebekah’s CV is, there is much more to her than what can be conveyed in its content. For instance, having studied the Icelandic language during her master’s studies, she would like to carve out more time to get back into translating some sagas. Iceland is among the countries topping her list to visit this year when she has the chance. She loves film and theatre, and with regards to the latter says that Shakespeare (‘of course’) and Samuel Beckett ‘divide the world between them’. As for her favourite play, it’s a tie between King Lear and Henry V.

Challenges and Opportunities for Students

Perhaps most important to Rebekah is her work with students here. She outlined some challenges she sees and offers encouragement to undergraduates and postgraduates in the midst of these.

Challenges:

A significant temptation in interdisciplinary studies is trying to cover too much. ‘A good project is as much about limit-setting as it is about engaging deeply and thoughtfully with the material in question. It’s also easy to be lured into a cycle of perpetual reading and deferral of writing. Try to make both of them part of your daily routine’, Rebekah encourages. ‘Writing is often how we process what we read and is the ticket to getting past the finish line’.

Encouragement:

Consistent with her view of the importance of interdisciplinary study in theology and the arts, Rebekah encourages students to cultivate both the artistic and spiritual realms in themselves and their work.

She recommends taking the long view and asking, ‘What do I love? Can I dedicate my time and energy to doing it, even if I end up taking a different track?’ She encourages postgraduates to write frequently (and to remember the ‘perfect’ can get in the way of the ‘good’). She also stresses that the doctorate should be taken up only if one believes it is worth it for its own sake, first and foremost. ‘Subjects have worth in and of themselve’, she commented, ‘and that worth is not tied only to the university trade’. However, it is never too early to start career planning and thinking about ways to network and develop, as much as possible, one’s own place and contributions within academia more broadly. She’s very open to, and indeed welcomes, chatting about this aspect of professional development with current ITIA postgraduates. In what is good news for those in ITIA and other interdisciplinary studies, Rebekah has observed that interdisciplinarity is highly sought. There is much to celebrate within theology and the arts!

Welcome, Rebekah!

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