Richard Newton Travels Around the World
in Search of Meaning
The Bible. Alex Haley’s Roots. The West Wing. People look for meaning and instruction in everything from ancient texts to popular novels to televised political dramas. School of Religion student Richard Newton is fascinated by this phenomena, and is dedicating his academic career to studying it.
Newton is a PhD student in the School of Religion’s Critical Comparative Scriptures program. His research focuses on the way communities use scripture—including ancient texts like the Bible, but really anything considered sacred—to inform their identity, understanding of the world, or decision-making.
This includes not just religious communities, but any group of individuals who follow a common text. That provides no shortage of research subjects for Newton, and his fieldwork has already taken him around the world, including modern Maya communities in Mexico, ancient ruins in Israel, and local churches in Los Angeles. He has also studied the secular communities that orient themselves around the popular television drama The West Wing and Alex Haley’s novel and resulting mini-series Roots.
“People ask me whether anything can be scripture. But a popular text is not necessarily scripture. It’s not a question of whether or not a book is read, it’s a question of whether a book is lived ,” said Newton. “When a book is scripture, it is held high, kissed, memorized— people draw pictures from it, name themselves after characters, or name their kids after them.”
This definition and wide-ranging study of scripture has been popularized by CGU’s Institute of Signifying Scriptures (ISS), which eschews traditional textual analysis and instead focuses on how humans experience, engage, and evolve religious traditions. Newton is currently a research assistant at ISS, which he considers a port in his academic storm. Before joining ISS— before even knowing ISS existed—he was conducting research that fit in squarely within the institute’s mission, though he didn’t know it at the time.
While a master’s student at Southern Methodist University (SMU), Newton became interested in the Parable of the Sower, one of Jesus’ key teachings from the Bible. In the story, when a sower drops his seeds on barren lands, they fail to sprout. But when his seeds are planted in good earth, they bear large yields of crops. Newton was interested in how this story was received in different parts of the world, so he traveled to a modern Maya community in YucatЗn, Mexico, to learn how the community of largely agrarian Christians interpreted this parable.
He then volunteered to participate in an archeological dig in Galilee, Israel, where he talked to archeologists, anthropologists, and even hydrologists to learn more about the realities of the society in which the parable was first told.
“I learned a lot about how this single message that used farming metaphors could be used to talk about socioeconomic realities in both the ancient and the modern world,” Newton said.
At SMU, his professors were supportive, but could provide little guidance for someone on such a unique path. “Most people I talked to said, ‘I don’t know how in the world you plan on bringing these scholars and methodologies together, because we don’t put these things together,’” Newton said. “But thankfully I discovered CGU, where this kind of transdisciplinary work is encouraged.”
Since arriving in Claremont, Newton has already launched several new research projects. He recently finished an ethnographic study on the politics and history of the Church of the Nazarene, a Protestant denomination with two million adherents worldwide.
He has also been inspired by The West Wing , a popular television drama about the fictionalized Democratic presidential administration of Josiah Bartlet. Newton only watched the show after it was released on DVD, but he was fascinated by how it integrated politics and religion, and by how fans of the show have formed a community built upon the show’s characters. The fictional President Bartlet wrote an op-ed for the Guardian newspaper. There are people on Twitter who write as characters from the show. Bartlet’s account alone has tens of thousands of followers. The real Vice President Joe Biden even responded to a tweet from Bartlet’s fictional chief of staff.
“I’ve been studying how The West Wing uses religion, which is something political dramas usually shy away from. But in this show, the president is a liberal Democrat who is a devout Catholic, quotes scripture, and speaks to God in Latin,” Newton said. “I’m also fascinated by how a community was formed around The West Wing . How the show takes on this formation as a sacred text. In some ways it has to do with religion, but in other ways it has nothing to do with religion.”
In a similar vein, Newton is beginning work on examining another piece of popular fiction, which will become his dissertation: an exploration of how Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family functions as national scripture, especially for African Americans, but also for the country as a whole.
“When I first came to CGU and was trying to get my head around the expansive notion of how scripture is defined at ISS, I realized that Roots was a great example,” Newton said. “Roots re-identified and re-conceptualized the understanding of the place of black people in the United States. It changed what it means to be African American. Roots is probably the single most used metaphor to talk about African American identity.”
For his research, Newton will be traveling to Alex Haley’s family farm in Tennessee, visiting a monument to Haley in Maryland, and hopes to interview several cast members from the mini-series here in Southern California.
“What I find most fascinating about ethnography, anthropologically, is that when you start to get to know a community you realize there are so many stories and so many experiences to learn from,” he said. “You make connections and meet people—for me, I always leave the better for it. And I hope to leave the places and the people the better for it, too.”