Bible stories

  • September 7, 2012
Bible stories

Gates Cambridge Scholar Elect Zack Guiliano will be studying the critical period during Charlemagne's reign and how it affected European legal reform, ideas about morality, and the interpretation of Christian Scripture.

How has the history of Christianity impacted on our intellectual culture? Zack Guiliano will be studying the critical period during Charlemagne’s reign and how it affected European legal reform, ideas about morality, and the interpretation of Christian Scripture.

“Many people regard Charlemagne as key. A lot of his ecclesiastical reforms were so influential,” says Zack. These included a reform in monasteries and churches which required everyone to read a particular set of authors. “Effectively they created study aids, collections of homilies and sermons which were read for the next 1,000 years up to the early modern period,” says Zack. “I am interested in the impact of this reform on the relationship between leaders and the Church and how this changed the intellectual and moral culture, as I’m very aware personally of how the presence or lack of books and study materials can impact intellectual communities and individuals.”

Zack’s interest in Christianity is not just academic. For him the academic, personal, religious and social are “very intertwined”. Yet, although he would eventually like to become an ordained minister in the Anglican church, he was in fact anti-Christian as a child and only came to embrace it as a result of a well-developed intellectual curiosity.

Childhood upheaval

Born in Illinois, Zack faced a lot of upheaval when he was young. The fourth child to a mother who was just 21 when he was born, Zack did not know his maternal siblings, who had different fathers and were given up for adoption, until he and his mother met up with them again when he was 14.

Zack’s father was given custody of him when his mother could no longer manage and he lived with him, his stepmother, stepbrother and two half brothers until the end of high school. Zack says he always felt slightly apart from the rest of the family.

He was closest to his half brother Brandon who was nine months older than him. The fact that Brandon was older meant Zack learnt things early. He began to read very early, at around three or four. “I always felt at least a year ahead,” he says.

His academic ability created a problem at school. “They didn’t know what to do with me as I was so bored,” he says. A gifted school was suggested, as well as moving him forward several grades, but his father turned these options down for various reasons. He was put on a programme for more able students at his school, but his father and stepmother divorced the following year and the family moved away from the school.

Intellectual frustration

Zack says the lack of resources meant he felt intellectually frustrated throughout his school and college years. “It was not until I got to Harvard to do my masters that I had access to a decent library. From a young age, though, I felt that I had good intellectual potential,” he says.

At high school, he says, “serious apathy” set in. “I felt I was wasting time. I read so much outside the classroom. I didn’t read the school textbooks,” he says. At high school, he began to make friends, though, after having been a bit of a loner and an outsider. “By the time I was at high school I was really comfortable with my own identity,” he says.

Zack was baptised a Catholic, but grew up with no religious background or belief. It was only around 5th grade after a potentially serious bicycle accident that he had what he calls “a religious conversion moment” and started going to Church. Also several of his friends were involved in the Church. “I was angry at religion and found it baffling, but I started talking to them. I wanted to understand their beliefs better and began exploring,” he says.

When his father and stepmother divorced and a lot of his older family members died he says he didn’t have a way to process what had happened meaningfully and remembers going to the school library and “grabbing a chunk of books on everything from Greek mythology to Judaism”. “I always thought the answer to everything was out there somewhere and if I just read enough I could find it. My family didn’t talk about death so I was on my own trying to figure things out,” he says.

Bible studies

At 16, he was invited to a Pentecostal youth group event at an Assemblies of God congregation. He stayed in the Assemblies of God for four years, as it was where his fiancé (now wife) grew up. Yet as he became more involved in Bible studies and went to college to do a Biblical studies degree as part of his preparation to become a church minister, he started having doubts about the Assemblies of God church and felt he could not subscribe to how specific they were about the fundamental truths they believed in, like speaking in tongues. He was starting to acquire a greater interest in religious history. “Pentecostalism is a relatively new religion. I became more interested in the normative tradition of traditional church teaching,” says Zack.

He was drawn to the Anglican tradition which he felt was more in tune with earlier generations of Christian practice. “I felt it was an intellectually tenable and beautiful tradition,” he says.

Zack did a four-year course in Biblical studies and language, two years of which were at Bible College and the last two at Evangel University.

He knew when he started that he wanted to do a PhD at “a more intellectually rigorous university”. “I always wanted to get the best education I could get,” he says. He started looking at Oxford and Cambridge as he was interested in studying the roots of Anglicanism and he wanted to travel. In his junior year at College he applied for a summer programme at Oxford studying Christianity in the British Isles. “It was the best summer of my life,” he says. “It was the first time I had been in a university of that calibre and had access to an outstanding library. I could study original documents. It was so stimulating.”

After leaving Evangel University, Zack had applied to Berkeley Divinity School at Yale because he wanted to be ordained and was looking at Episcopal denominational schools. He didn’t get in because he had not completed a particular part of the ordination process so applied to Harvard Divinity School. He says his three years at Harvard were the most challenging of his life. He studied for an MDiv, primarily in the history of Biblical interpretation.

“I was interested in how people interpreted the Bible in different periods,” he says. During his first year there was a lot of tension as his Church wanted him to go back to do his ministry. He wrote to his bishop and explained that he wanted to pursue a PhD and that not pushing himself to his intellectual limits would mean he was not honouring his vocation. His bishop supported his decision to withdraw from the ordination process. He says ordination is “still on the back burner” and while he has been at Harvard he has been preaching regularly as part of his Episcopal/Anglican fellowship and as a ministerial fellow at the Episcopal Chaplaincy. He has also worked as a student events manager, managing a team of around 70 students.

At Cambridge he will study for a PhD in History, focusing on the history of Christianity. He is interested in the early Christian Church’s relationship with government and how the interpretation of the scriptures impacted on history. “It’s an understudied subject,” he says. One which his intellectual curiosity will surely shed more light on.

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