Elizabeth A. Clark

John Carlisle Kilgo Professor, Duke University

Engendering Religious Studies, 10/10/2000
Rewriting Early Christian History, 10/12/2000

Elizabeth A. Clark, the John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion at Duke University, is one of the leading scholars of Late Antiquity in the world. A pioneer in opening up the study of Christian history and culture to new questions, Clark applies contemporary cultural, literary, social, and feminist theory to ancient sources. Educated at Vassar College and Columbia University (where she earned her doctorate), she founded the Department of Religion at Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia. After eighteen years, she joined the faculty of Duke University in 1982. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Clark has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Clark virtually invented the study of women in the post-New Testament early Christian period. Looking behind the androcentric literature of the church fathers, she deciphered and brought to light evidence for the important activities of prominent women. In the course of two books of collected essays -- Jerome, Chrysostom, and Friends (1979) and Ascetic Piety and Women's Faith (1986)--- Clark analyzed the power of women gained through asceticism and demonstrated the extent to which their acts of renunciation served as a precondition for equality between the sexes. While previous scholars had tended to cast Christian ascetics as masochists or arch neurotics, Clark broke with this tradition, instead construing asceticism in terms of sociocultural power and the construction and revision of gender roles. In addition, Clark translated many of the relevant sources into English for the first time.

Clark's two most recent books, both works of magisterial weight, exemplify what can be achieved when patient historical labor is combined with theoretical sophistication. The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate (1992) brilliantly uses social network theory to contextualize debates over the representation of God, the construction of the body, the freedom of the will, and the justice of the divine that inflamed intellectuals at the turn of the fifth century. Her newly published book-- Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity (1999) employs contemporary literary theory to illumine patristic efforts to find ascetic meaning in a Bible that seemed rather to promote family and reproduction. This study examines various reading strategies employed by early ascetic interpreters in a way that students of literary theory of any period would find fascinating.

At present, Clark has focused her attention on the greatest challenge that history has hitherto encountered: the problem of the 'linguistic turn' in poststructuralist thought and the difficulties it presents with regard to the referential status of any reconstruction of the past. Early returns on what will result in a book-length project tentatively entitled Rewriting Christian History --have been suggestive. For instance, Clark's article "The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the Linguistic Turn" (1998) examines, in her own words, "what opportunities and pitfalls confront the feminist historian who wishes to engage the postmodern intellectual scene." Ending with a model analysis of Gregory of Nyssa's biography of his sister, Macrina, Clark demonstrates that the historical lady does, indeed, vanish -- transformed into fluid symbols at the hands of patriarchal authorities.

Clarks energetic service has contributed greatly to interest in the early church. She has made the literature of gender and church history available in the classroom through her reader Women and Religion: A Feminist Sourcebook of Christian Studies (1977; rev. 1996). In 1992, she founded the prize-winning Journal of Early Christian Studies, of which she continues to be co-editor. Her colleagues have recognized Clark's scholarly leadership by electing her president of the North American Patristic Society, the American Academy of Religion, and the American Society of Church History. Generously serving as teacher, mentor, and editor, she has already left an indelible mark on a generation of younger scholars.

Through her groundbreaking work, Clark continues to bring the sheltered world of "patristics" into the central theoretical conversations that currently shape literary and historical studies.