Who We Are

Asher Biemann, VCSR Co-Director

Asher BiemannAsher Biemann’s research focuses on modern Jewish thought and intellectual and cultural history. Rooted in Jewish and Continental philosophical traditions, his work frequently engages religious and aesthetic questions. Historically, his research concentrates on Jewish life in Central Europe, Italy, the Yishuv and modern Israel. In addition to the Martin Buber Werkausgabe, he is also involved in the edition of the works of Isaac Breuer and in collaborative projects on modern Jewish Orthodoxy and culture.

Natasha Heller, VCSR Co-Director

natasha_heller_religious_studies_01hr_daNatasha Heller studies Chinese Buddhism in the context of cultural and intellectual history. Her research includes both the pre-modern period (10th through 14th c.) and the contemporary era. Heller’s study of an eminent monk of the Yuan dynasty, Illusory Abiding: The Cultural Construction of the Chan Monk Zhongfeng Mingben, was published by Harvard University Asia Center in 2014.  Heller’s current book project concerns picture books published by Buddhist organizations in Taiwan, and how such children’s fiction not only teaches young people about the Buddhist tradition, but also addresses how to relate to clergy, family members, and society.


Paul Dafydd Jones

Paul Dafydd Jones, VCSR Co-Director

Paul Dafydd Jones is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies. His teaching and research focus on Christian thought and western philosophy of religion, with particular interests in systematic, political, and liberationist theology.

He is the author of The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (T&T Clark) – a work honored with the Templeton Award for Theological Promise – as well as numerous articles and essays in the field of Christian thought. He is currently working on a book titled Patience: A Theological Exploration and is also co-editor, with Paul Nimmo (University of Aberdeen), of the Oxford Handbook of Karl Barth, to be published in 2016.

Born and raised in the United Kingdom, he was educated at Oxford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Harvard University. He has taught at the University of Virginia since Fall 2006, and lives with his family in Charlottesville, Virginia.


Matthew Hedstrom, VCSR Co-Director

Matthew Hedstrom is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and a historian of the United States specializing, in religion and culture in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His central questions probe the intersections of American modernity and Protestant and post-Protestant religious modernity in the United States. He also has longstanding and ongoing interests in the history of the book, especially as it applies to American religious history. Race, religion and psychology, the history of spirituality, mass culture, religious liberalism, cosmopolitanism and internationalism all figure into his research and teaching.

His first book, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century, employs novel sources in book history to tell the surprising story of religious liberalism’s cultural ascendancy in the twentieth century. The religious middlebrow culture of mid-century, he argues, brought psychological, mystical, and cosmopolitan forms of spirituality to broad swaths of the American middle class. This book was awarded the 2013 Brewer Prize from the American Society for Church History.

He is beginning work on two new books: the first, a history of religion, reading, and book culture in America, 1600-present, for the Chicago History of American Religion series from the University of Chicago Press. And the next, a study of race and religious liberalism from roughly 1875 to 1945, with a focus on authenticity and experience amid the transformations of modernity.


John Nemec, VCSR Director

John Nemec is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. His research centers on Indian intellectual and cultural history, particularly the philosophy and literature of the Kashmir Valley of the ninth to twelfth centuries, a period of great literary and cultural production, when the Valley was perhaps the most important intellectual center of South Asia. My areas of specialization are Tantric (i.e., Indian Esoteric) Studies, Sanskrit, and South Asian Religions.

His first book examines the philosophy of one Somānanda, a Kashmiri, high-caste Brahmin of the tenth century, whose magnum opus, the Śivadṛṣṭi, sought to articulate a public defense of an esoteric, tantric tradition. The work is notable for its distinguished legacy: it is the first work of the influential Pratyabhijñā (or “Recognition”) School, which quickly developed a pan-Indian following and culminated in the philosophical writings of Somānanda’s great-grand-disciple, the colossally influential, late tenth- and early eleventh-century polymath, Abhinavagupta.

His current work is focused on an examination of the larger intellectual and cultural context of Kashmir in the same period.

Charles Mathews

Charles Mathewes, VCSR Co-Director

Charles Mathewes is the Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

He is the author of Evil and the Augustinian Tradition and A Theology of Public Life, both with Cambridge University Press; Understanding Religious Ethics from Wiley-Blackwell; and The Republic of Grace, from Eerdmans.  He is currently the Senior Editor leading a team producing a four-volume “Major Works” collection for Routledge Publishers on the field of Comparative Religious Ethics.  He is also Associate Editor of the forthcoming third edition of the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, and created a 36-lecture video and audio series with the Teaching Company, entitled “Why Evil Exists.”

From 2006 to 2010, he was Editor of The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the flagship journal in the field of religious studies, and was the inaugural Director of the Virginia Center for the Study of Religion.  He serves on the House of Bishops Theology Committee of the Episcopal Church, and is Chair of the Committee on the Future of Christian Ethics by the Society of Christian Ethics.  With his wife Jennifer Geddes, he served a four-year term as Co-Principal of one of UVA’s residential colleges, Brown College at Monroe Hill.

He spent much of his childhood in Saudi Arabia, and was educated at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago.  He lives with his family outside Charlottesville, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.


Janet Spittler VCSR Co-Director

Janet Spittler is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies.  She works on early Christian literature, including both the New Testament and apocryphal texts.

Spittler is author of Animals in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), co-editor of Credible or Incredible: the Miraculous in the Ancient Mediterranean (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), and editor/translator of “Apollonios (uncertain date) (1672).” Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker Continued. Part IV E. Paradoxography and Antiquities. IV 1. Paradoxography.


Naomi Worth, VCSR Coordinator

Naomi is a Doctoral Student in Religious Studies, focusing on Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism. She is in the research phase of her dissertation which will explore the subtle body, consciousness and Buddhist psychology in Tibet and India through meditation and ritual practices. Her secondary specialization is the Haṭha Yoga tradition, and she also works on the philosophical systems of two great Indian thinkers, Patañjali and Śaṇkarācarya.

Naomi is a translator of Tibetan and Sanskrit, and was awarded a Fellowship at the Ranjung Yeshe Institute in Nepal in 2013. In 2015 she presented her paper, “Divine Creation in Dream Yoga: How Seeing Oneself as a Deity Incites Access to the Subtle Energetic Body” at the Southeast Conference on the Study of Religion Panel on Divine Creation. In 2016, she presented “Similarities Between Ancient Indian Buddhism and Modern Neuroscience on Maps of Consciousness” at the Northern California Consciousness Conference at UC Davis; “Mind With and Without a Body: Tibetan Perspectives on Death and Dying” at the Graduate Conference on Religion at Indiana University; and “Or Try This: The vā Section of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra” at the Yoga Darśana, Yoga Sādhana conference in Krakow, Poland.

Naomi earned her M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia in 2014, and her B.A. in Psychology from Tulane University in 2002. She is currently the Teaching Assistant for Classical Islam, and has previously taught The Theory and Practice of Yoga and Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, all within UVa’s Department of Religious Studies. Naomi is on the Contemplative Council for UVA’s Contemplative Science Center.

Carrie Frederick Frost

Carrie Frederick Frost, Former VCSR Coordinator

Carrie Frederick Frost is the incoming Coordinator of the Virginia Center for the Study of Religion and a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, where she studies Orthodox Christian theology with a focus on family. Her dissertation aims to remedy the lack of reflection on motherhood in Christian thought by offering a theological consideration of motherhood in the context of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, using theology, doctrine, homilies, liturgy, iconography, and other sources.

She also works on a library acquisition project, Paradosis, at the University of Virginia, the goal of which is to improve the university’s holdings of Orthodox Christian theological texts. She has published articles on theology and motherhood in several locations, including First Things and Commonweal. She serves on the board of Mountaintop Montessori and chairs the board of Walnut Grove Cemetery in West Virginia. More information can be found at her website.


Ashley Tate, VCSR Coordinator

Ashley Tate is a doctoral student in Religious Studies, with a concentration in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity. Her research interests include the ways in which literary and gender theory and criticism may be brought to bear upon biblical texts, specifically the Hebrew Bible, as well as comparative hermeneutics of the patristic and rabbinic interpretive traditions. Of particular interest is the question of how such interpretive strategies—ancient and contemporary—interact with, work within, and perhaps even push against the received authority of the biblical text in new contexts.

Ashley also serves as managing editor of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning and the Journal of Textual Reasoning, and she is associate editor of the Journal of Textual Reasoning.

Philip Wood, VCSR Undergraduate Fellow

IMG_4583-2Philip Wood is a fourth year at the University of Virginia studying Religion and English focusing on Christian theology and ethics with interests in Christian community development, liberation theology and the connection and interaction of religion, politics, and policy. Philip also leads a small group with Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship, is a Perkins Fellow with Theological Horizons working alongside Casa Alma, a Catholic Worker house in Charlottesville. Outside of UVa Philip’s interests include hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains, playing and watching soccer, and reading and writing poetry.


Allison Hurst, Former VCSR Undergraduate Fellow

Allison Hurst graduated from the University of Virginia with a major in Religious Studies and a minor in Jewish Studies. She concentrated in Judaism and wrote a Distinguished Major thesis entitled “‘I Can Do Bad All by Myself:’ Independent Women of the Hebrew Bible,” earning highest distinction. She is currently pursuing a Master of Theological Studies degree in Hebrew Bible at Harvard Divinity School.

Joshua Whitwell

Joshua Whitwell, VCSR Undergraduate Fellow

Joshua Whitwell is a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Virginia double majoring in Religious Studies and East Asian Studies. His primary concentration is Buddhism, and his secondary concentration is Hinduism. Overall he is interested in the modernization of contemplative practices in the West, especially the role that traditional Buddhist doctrine plays in secular usages of mindfulness based stress reduction. During his time at the University he has served as a teaching assistant for an inter-professional nursing seminar on mindfulness and compassion, was a founding member of the Student’s for a Free Tibet U.Va. chapter, and volunteered on the Rivanna Trails clean up team. He also hopes to rekindle the Meditation Club at U.Va. during his final year on grounds.

Emily Churchill

Emily Churchill, Former VCSR Undergraduate Fellow

Emily Churchill graduated from the University of Virginia with a double major in Religious Studies and Foreign Affairs and a minor in English. Her primary concentration was Hinduism and her secondary concentration was in Buddhism. Through her undergraduate career, she focused largely on interfaith conflict resolution and Sanskrit translation. She was a columnist for the Cavalier Daily for two years, interned with Patheos and the Eleison Group, was on the executive board of Crafting for Conservation, and worked at the Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University.


Ellie Leech, VCSR Undergraduate Fellow

Ellie Leech is a fourth year undergraduate double majoring in Religious Studies, concentrating in Christianity and Judaism, and Medieval Studies, with a focus in Viking history and literature. Within Religious Studies, her research is primarily concerned with the historical reception of apocryphal texts as compared to canonical scriptures, particularly in regards to gender issues in the Early Church. Outside of class, she spends her time making lattes and plotting ways to make her Medieval Studies classes relevant to her roommates. She is also a Perkins Fellow with the Bonhoeffer House, volunteering with Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries as a leader with high school girls.

Sarah Katherine Doyle, VCSR Undergraduate Fellow

IMG_5633Sarah Katherine Doyle is a fourth year student at UVA and a double major in English and Religious Studies. Her concentrations in Religious Studies are in Christianity and Judaism. Outside of the classroom, Sarah Katherine leads the youth group at St. Paul’s Memorial Church on the Corner, is a Horizons Fellow with Theological Horizons, and serves as a mentor with Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries working with high school girls.

Valerie C. Cooper, Former VCSR Co-Director

Valerie C. Cooper is currently a Visiting Associate Professor of Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School. Previously, she was an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. She received her doctorate from Harvard Divinity School and both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Howard University. In her research and teaching, Dr. Cooper examines issues of religion, race, and society. Her book, Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans (The University of Virginia Press, 2012), analyzes the role of biblical interpretation in the work of Maria Stewart, a pioneering nineteenth-century African American woman political speaker. In her current research, Dr. Cooper is evaluating the successes and failures of the racial reconciliation efforts of Christian congregations and ministries from the 1990s to the present. The Project for Lived Theology at the University of Virginia has just awarded her a grant to support her research and writing on this topic, which will culminate in a book, The Test of Power: Racial Reconciliation in the Church, to be published by Abingdon Press. Finally, in anticipation of the election season, Dr. Cooper wrote an essay with political scientist Cowrin Smidt on the role of religion and race for “Righteousness and Justice”: Religion, Barack Obama, and the 2008 Election, which was released in August, 2012 by Routledge Press.

Emily O. Gravett, Former VCSR Coordinator

Emily O. Gravett is the outgoing Coordinator of the Virginia Center for the Study of Religion and holds a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. She specializes in Religion and Literature, but she is also interested in the intersection(s) between religion and other forms of culture (such as film), as well as how feminist theories can help scholars engage and critique these intersections. Her other love is the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Accordingly, her dissertation focuses on contemporary literary retellings of biblical stories, such as the Flood in Genesis. She has worked for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion and The Hedgehog Review and she was a consultant at UVA’s Writing Center and Teaching Resource Center. She has several entries in press with Walter de Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception and an article in Biblical Interpretation. More information can be found at her website. Currently, Emily is the Assistant Director of Programs for the Collaborative of Learning and Teaching at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

Jessica Church, Former Undergraduate Fellow

Jessica Church graduated from the University of Virginia with a double major in Religious Studies and Environmental Thought and Practice. Her primary concentration was Christianity and her secondary concentration was Judaism.  Specifically, her interests include liberation theology, environmental ethics, and process theology.  During Jessica’s time as an undergrad, she was involved with the Washington Literary Society and Debating Union, spent a semester abroad in Costa Rica studying conservation, and held internships with the Western Virginia Land Trust and the Eleison Group/American Values Network. She contributes to Faithful Democrats, a progressive Christian blog hosted by Patheos. Currently, Jessica is an associate at Elesion Group in Washington, D.C.

Rebekah Latour, Former Undergraduate Fellow

Rebekah Latour graduated from UVA with a major in Religious Studies, her primary concentration in Christianity and her secondary concentration in Judaism. Her interests include systematic theology, liberation theology, and classical studies, in particular Roman Civilization, Latin, Greek, and biblical Hebrew. In her undergraduate career at UVA, Rebekah worked as a tutor for Abundant Life Ministries, was a first-year group leader for Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship, and was an assistant for St. John, Bowling, Lawrence & Quagliana, LLP. Currently, Rebekah is pursuing a Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School.