Humanities Students to Present Papers at Major Research Events

Researchers Morgan DePerno, Elisa Berndt, Emily Wehde and Tom Gehring will present their papers at Midwest research events this spring.

Four humanities students from Augustana have papers accepted to major research events in the Midwest.

A group of three senior women, Elisa Berndt, Morgan DePerno and Emily Wehde co-authored a research paper to submit to two events, the 6th Student Symposium on Science and Spirituality, a graduate-level symposium, at the Zygon Center in Chicago on Feb. 27, and the Undergraduate Research Session at the Upper Midwest AAR/SBL Meeting, a meeting for research in religion, in the Twin Cities.

Senior Tom Gehring will also present his research at the Undergraduate Research Session in the Twin Cities April 17-18.

We caught up with these four students to learn more about their research:

“Fully Human and Fully Divine: The birth of Christ and the role of Mary”

Elisa Berndt (Baltic, South Dakota), majoring in religion with minors in psychology and gerontology
Morgan DePerno (Harrisburg, South Dakota), majoring in religion and biology
Emily Wehde (Sioux Falls), majoring in religion and biology with a minor in Spanish

Q: How did you come to choose Augustana?

EB: I knew I wanted to study religion before I started college and after I was introduced to the campus and some of the professors in the religion department, I thought I had found a good fit. This turned out to be true! I was also excited to learn about all the opportunities in Sioux Falls, a city I had lived near but was never actually a part of.

MD: I was introduced to the idea of Augustana College by my brilliant high school chemistry teacher who was an Augie alum. So when the time came to apply for schools, I only toured at Augustana and applied nowhere else. I had other reasons for applying here – I’d heard many good things about the opportunities given to undergraduates such as research experience, but I also knew I wasn’t mature enough to live away from home just yet. Looking back, it was the best, most life-changing decision I could have made.

EW: I went to a smaller high school, so I was attracted to the smaller feel of the Augustana campus in comparison to a large university. Beyond that, I knew Augie would provide lots of opportunities to try new things and the possibility of traveling abroad. My interest in music also played a key role in choosing Augustana. I wanted to continue playing and the music department provided the option of participating in several ensembles.

Q: Can you give a brief description of your research?

A: The Christian confession of the virgin birth of Jesus is a statement of faith that God became incarnate through the power of the Holy Spirit in not only in the flesh of the human Jesus, but also through our own flesh where He has entangled himself in the messy details of our lives. Responding to the question, what does the birth of Jesus have to do with reproductive technology, this paper focuses on the mystery and miracle of the birth of Jesus as it relates to God’s actions of becoming incarnate in human flesh and working within Mary, which is of higher importance than Mary’s gynecological or parthenogenical mechanisms. Consequently, we would like to offer a theological interpretation of the birth of Jesus and the role of Mary that expresses the mystery and grace of God’s incarnation not only in human nature, but in all of nature.

Q: Why did you choose this topic?

A: In a way, the project picked us more than we chose it: It all began when our professor, Dr. Ann Pederson, approached us asking if we would be interested in constructing a theological response to a scientific article about the biological possibility of a virgin conception and birth. I don’t think any of us really knew what we were getting into, but when you combine a religion professor, three students of differing perspectives and majors, and a bioethicist, you’re bound to end up with something.  This paper is a culmination of these voices, and we couldn’t be happier with it.

Q: What made you decide to submit the paper to these conferences?

A: We had submitted our paper for publishing in the journal Religions, but once Dr. Pederson told us about opportunities to present our work, we felt it was beneficial to expose ourselves to higher areas of theological research and writing.

Q: How do you feel about presenting your research to other undergrads and professionals in your chosen field?

A: We are excited! It is a great opportunity to share our ideas and receive feedback.  However, as eager as we are to present this paper we worked on for a good majority of our fall semester, we are even more excited to hear the research topics and areas other undergraduates and professionals have pursued.

Q: What are your post-graduate plans?

EB: I plan on attending seminary to pursue a Master of Divinity, and someday hope to work in hospital chaplaincy or at an assisted living facility.

MD: Originally coming to Augustana College with ideas of being a dentist, at the end of the junior year I felt called to pursue religion. I now have plans to pursue my Master of Divinity at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago or Wake Forest Divinity.

EW: I plan to attend seminary for a Master of Arts.

“From Bonhoeffer to Deloria: An exploration of the history of the Confessing Church and Native American Liberation Theology.”

Tom Gehring (Sioux Falls), majoring in religion with a German minor

Q: How did you come to choose Augustana?

A: The biggest draw to Augie for me is twofold. For starters, Augie’s campus was the only one that felt like I was at home when I visited. I knew this was a campus where I could find my place and find myself. The second draw came from a meeting with a religion professor. I was lucky enough to know I wanted to major in religion before coming to school. When I met with a professor from the department, I discovered Augie was a safe place to question and challenge my faith. That was very freeing for me and it could not have excited me more to start taking classes here.

Q: Can you give a brief description of your research?

A: I have spent the last two years studying Bonhoeffer’s works and theology very deeply. However, this past January I traveled to Germany in order to learn more about the Confessing Church, and their response to Hitler and the Third Reich. After discovering a few provocative facts about the actions, and inactions, of the dissenting confessing church, I started thinking about how the Christian church is standing up to oppression today. Considering the Native American reservations are right in my backyard in South Dakota, I started to research native liberation theology. I’m hoping to draw on Bonhoeffer’s, as well as modern liberation theologians', theology to construct a new theology for the Christian church. This new theology will be grounded in neighbor love, God’s call to concrete action, and function as the antidote to Christian complacency.

Q: Why did you choose this topic?

A: I have always felt strongly about the themes of call and commission Christians receive; but ever since my youth, I have been conflicted. I heard the church talking about serving the neighbor and loving the stranger, but what I saw actually practiced was something different. Reading Bonhoeffer’s theology, which is primarily in community and suffering for the neighbor through concrete actions, opened a new world of thinking to me. I became more and more interested in theology that has action as a necessary element to it, but was tired of reading about this theology in the context of World War II. I started shifting my thoughts towards my own context and how Bonhoeffer can be read, used, and interpreted in a modern light. I know oppression still happens every day, even in South Dakota. All of this combined moved me in the direction I am headed with this research today.

Q: What made you decide to submit the paper to a conference?

A: The forcefully encouraging words of Dr. Ann Milliken Pederson played a part in my decision to submit my research. I think even more persuasive than that is my conviction that this is something the Christian church needs to hear today. If my paper is the vessel through which truth can path and light be shed, why not try to seek a venue for that to happen? I don’t think I have all the answers, but I hope my words and thoughts might provoke, and hopefully unsettle, people to the point where they pursue the topic themselves.

Q: How do you feel about presenting your research to other undergrads and professionals in your chosen field?

A: Most of the time, the words of the prophet Jeremiah echo through my head: “Lord God, truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a young boy!” Regardless, the fear and nervousness lets me know this topic is an important one. I am excited to get my thoughts and theological ideas out there because I believe this conversation is one that needs to happen in the church today.

Q: What are your post-graduate plans?

A: After graduation, I will spend the summer as a backpacking guide at Sky Ranch Bible Camp in Colorado. After that, I plan on spending a year living in a small intentional community on the Rosebud Native American Reservation. The experience will not only grant me a yearlong break from the world of books, assignments, and academia, but also provide me with a new lens of seeing the world. I hope to meet people outside of my own context before attending seminary for four years to become ordained as a pastor.