If any of Ian Werrett's students ask him what religious tradition
he follows, the associate professor of religious studies at Saint
Martin's University always has a ready reply.
"I tell them to mind their own business," says Werrett.
"That's my answer because what I do here is about the
scholarship of religion. A person of faith would not ask the
sorts of questions we would ask when dealing with the academics
"I want to talk about various religions as objectively as I
can," explains Werrett, who is also director of SMU's Spiritual
Life Institute, a summer program designed to explore the
history, ethics and beliefs of the world's religions. "I want to
shed some light and enable my students to be able to make up
their own minds and decide if they want to make further
exploration outside my classroom."
"I also want my students to be excited about religion," adds
Werrett. "It's a fascinating thing to study."
Werrett should know. He has studied, spoken and written
widely on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He has conducted research on
ancient libraries and ritual purity; Jewish and biblical law and
Second Temple Judaism; Christian art and art theory; religion
and sports; and religion and violence. Under his direction this
summer, the Spiritual Life Institute's annual, week-long,
intensive learning program will host a group of students and
theologians as they explore gnosticism, considered to be a
heretical movement of the second-century Christian church.
Werrett traces his interest in religion to his high school
days in San Jose, California, when he briefly joined a
Christian, evangelical youth group called Young Life. His
pursuit of religious studies fully blossomed soon after he
arrived at Saint Martin's as an undergraduate student, even
though his initial decision to attend the University had little
to do with religion. "I met a girl and I followed her here," he
Then, one day in a religious studies class, Werrett and his
classmates were introduced to the Dead Sea Scrolls through a
lecture delivered by religious studies professor David Suter.
"It was the coolest thing I ever heard," says Werrett, who
earned his bachelor's degree in English with a minor in
religious studies in 1996. He went on to earn a master's degree
in biblical studies from Trinity Western University in Langley,
B.C., Canada, and a doctorate in biblical studies from the
University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Scotland.
Werrett's decision to return to Saint Martin's for his first
post-Ph.D. job was fueled by the way faculty members treated him
during his years as an undergraduate. "It quickly became a
powerful place for me in terms of relationships with my
professors," Werrett recalls. "It was the first time I actually
felt like I was being taken seriously, that the ideas and
thoughts I had were valued."
"It was the first place where people took me under their wing
and said, 'That's a good idea you have. Let's talk about it,
let's shape it.'"
"I want to give my students the same experience I had as a
student here," says Werrett. "I want to give them that extra
attention, keep my office door always open to them," That door
remains open to any student who is willing, though perhaps
reluctantly at first, to cross the threshold.
"I've had the full spectrum of students attending my
religious studies classes, including self-professed atheists who
tried to sabotage the class or try to control it in some way,"
Werrett says. "I remember one student who, by the end of the
course, wrote me a letter saying had it not been for the
approach I took in the class, it would have been the worst
course of his life."
It may not be any of his students' business to ask about his
faith, but Werrett does believe it's up to them to
intellectually challenge him.
"They keep me accountable that way; they keep me on my toes,"
says Werrett. "I've also realized that if I expect something
from them, I have to give something in return. I have to keep
them engaged, entertained and interested. That's an in for me."
That is also, most definitely, his business.