By Kelly O'Brien
Philip Sellew, recipient of the Motley Exemplary Teaching Award, gently guides his students on a journey of discovery.
As a public university, Minnesota's religious studies offerings focus not on indoctrinating any particular belief, but in understanding the historical, cultural, and societal significance of religion.
Jesus and the Gospels
So when a first-year student here takes Philip Sellew's Jesus in History class, she might have her own faith or assumptions challenged--but in a good way. "Students in their first year of college are in a searching mode," says Sellew, an associate professor in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies. "It's not my job to tell students what to think, but to get them to start noticing things and thinking about what they believe."
Coptic and Early Christianity
He is also the U's Coptic instructor. Coptic was the language of Egypt during early Christian times, and is still used today in Coptic Orthodox ritual, much like how Latin was used in the Roman Catholic mass. It's an important language in the study of early Christianity, because many of the best preserved Gospel codices have been found in Egypt. Bury a book in Minnesota and in a few years you'll have mulch. "But bury a book in the desert of Egypt, and 2,000 years later you'll have a book with some dirt on it," says Sellew.
His work in Coptic is rewarding, both personally and intellectually. Every time he teaches beginning Coptic he has students from the local Coptic Orthodox community ("They come to class and can sing hymns in Coptic, even though they don't yet speak it."). And Coptic, unlike other Biblical-era languages, still maintains some linguistic mysteries that challenge scholars. "It's rich with possibility," says Sellew. A future publication project of his will be an anthology of Coptic literature and hymns.
Death and the Ancients--and Us
It's important to Sellew that his students make personal connections to the world of antiquity and early Christianity. This is perhaps best exemplified in his course Death and the Afterlife. College students are, in Sellew's opinion, fascinated with questions surrounding death and what may come afterward. Through grounding the class in the ancient world--Gilgamesh, Augustine--and layering on films, music, and poetry from today, Sellew's students examine their own beliefs about death and the afterlife. They consider why we care about this most mysterious of life's mysteries, and what the ancients were facing as they created their own death and afterlife myths and practices.
It's his gentle guidance, his respect for his students' varied beliefs, that has made him such a beloved professor and a recipient of a 2010 Arthur "Red" Motley Exemplary Teaching Award. The nomination letters from his former students were littered with words like influential, concerned, caring, and respectful. "My role is not to convince them of what version or another of the Gospels is correct," he says, as way of example. "Students should have an experience of self-discovery." And whether his students are exploring the eighteen versions of the Gospels, learning the language and culture of Coptic Egypt, or exploring two millennia of death rituals, Professor Sellew will, in the words of a former student, "impart the inspiration and empowerment to pursue our own questions, in our own work."