Princeton Weekly Bulletin May 3, 1999

Challenging positions

Adventure, physical and intellectual, is a way of life for religion professor

By Ken Howard


John Gager climbing Tiptoe in Joshua Tree National Park, Calif. (photo by Peter Gager)


John Gager, William H. Danforth Professor of Religion, enjoys a good walk -- especially up a sheer cliff face.

His love of rock climbing isn't without some hazards, however, even beyond the inevitable scrapes, sprains and occasional breaks.

Four years ago, on what he describes as a "fairly easy" climb up Mont Blanc in France, Gager experienced something "more terrifying than any fall." While tethered to a guide some 750 feet above flat ground, "I heard a rumble, and an enormous rockfall came down the couloir 15 feet to my right. Boulders crashed down, hitting, turning in the air and hitting again. I could smell the rocks bashing into each other. A cloud of smoke rose from the couloir. The whole mountain shook."

The couloir, an alpine ravine, was the established path of descent on this climb. "Starting two hours earlier would have put us in the couloir during the rockfall, and we'd have been dead," Gager says. After waiting out the slide, he and his guide continued their climb, reached the summit and then descended the rock-strewn couloir, creating a new trail.

Putting himself in a challenging position and forging a path through altered terrain is all in aday's work for Gager, whether climbing a mountain, agitating for civil rights, teaching an ancient text or challenging a set of beliefs. He is someone who values change as growth and sees every day and every personal contact as an opportunity to change.

He wasn't always a person with a strong inner drive, he says."As an undergraduate, I had no sense of direction for the first two years. I took my junior year in France as an opportunity to leave Yale and figure things out. It became a dramatic turnaround in every sense -- politically, spiritually and socially."

While in Paris, Gager lived what he calls "the bohemian life style," lodging in a Left Bank walkup, becoming involved in the Algerian independence movement and educating himself in classical music by attending two or three concerts a week.

Intellectual, social activism

Senior year back at Yale brought continued change. After consulting with Yale chaplain William Sloan Coffin, Gager decided to go on to divinity school. "Divinity schools during that time were centers of intense intellectual and social activism," he says. "Fully 50 percent of divinity grads went on to medical, law and other pursuits."

Newly married, Gager enrolled at Yale Divinity School in 1959. Though not particularly religious (he was "observant in a casual way"), he found that the textual underpinnings of religion exerted a strong intellectual pull. "The first semester, I took a course in the New Testament, and it just grabbed me. It's such an important artifact in history, argued over, fought over, interpreted." He concentrated on ancient Greek and Hebrew languages in addition to biblical studies.

As a graduate student, Gager continued the efforts toward social justice he began in Paris. He became involved in the Civil Rights movement, traveling by bus with Freedom Rider Coffin and others to Jackson, Miss., in 1961. Deciding to go South, he recalls, was "a momentous decision that filled me with trepidation" -- trepidation that proved well founded when he and others were charged with trespassing and ended up first in a communal jail in Jackson and then in solitary confinement in the Parchman Penitentiary for several days.

After Gager earned his bachelor of divinity degree in 1962, he and his wife Catharine spent two years in Europe -- first in Switzerland, where he worked as a documents translator for the World Council of Churches in Geneva, and then in Germany, where he began to study Coptic at the University of Tübingen. In 1964 he enrolled at Harvard to pursue a PhD, adding classics to his focus on the Bible and ancient languages.

Teaching touches lives

As a Princeton faculty member since 1968, Gager has taught courses on the New Testament, the beginnings of Christianity, and the interactions between Jews and Christians through the Middle Ages. Among his many publications are Moses in Greco-Roman Paganism (1972), Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity (1975), The Origins of Anti-Semitism (1983) and Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World (1992).

He has always loved teaching, he says. "When teaching really works, you touch people's lives. You have an impact and help them to see the world in different ways, to develop critical reflection and enable them to connect dots on the cognitive and cultural map that they had not even seen as related. It's a wonderfully rewarding experience that's self-sustaining: you too are finding new dots and connecting, learning from your students and colleagues in the field." In 1998 he received the President's Award for Distinguished Teaching.

A faculty fellow at Wilson College during the 1970s, Gager has been a strong supporter of the residential college system at Princeton since its establishment in 1982.

"Yale's college system, which incorporated everyone, was very meaningful to me," he says. "It brought me into contact with members of the faculty outside the classroom. It gave a sense of unity and broke down the size of the school, making it a smaller, more manageable, more human place."

Forbes Master

Master of Forbes College since 1992, Gager has extended his contact with students beyond the professor-student relationship.

"As professor, you look at them as students, rarely getting beyond that aspect of their lives. Here in the college, I see students as roommates and struggling adolescents -- getting into trouble, growing, moving out on their own away from families and earlier expectations. As master of Forbes, I try to provide a presence that says it's not just a place to eat and sleep but a place to grow." He is also a dedicated member of Outdoor Action.

Gager especially enjoys working with the residential advisers, whom he describes as the "very best of Princeton. They're bright, responsible, committed and mature."

They seem to feel a reciprocal admiration. "He's a wonderful role model in the way he balances academic pursuits, love of the outdoors and other activities," says RA Laura Hardman '99. "I've been inspired by how he relates to people from different backgrounds, how he supports and embraces people with different views, how he's always there for advice."

After one more year as master of Forbes, Gager plans to return to full-time teaching and research, including completing his fifth book, a study of St. Paul that he expects to publish in 2000. Does he have any big plans he wants to push to complete before his term is up?

"I didn't go into the master's job with big plans," he says. "I knew enough about residential colleges to understand that going in with big plans would be a recipe for frustration. I measure success by making an impact on one or two people."

With the number of people Gager encounters every day as a teacher and Forbes Master, which includes not just his students and Forbes residents but maintainance workers, public safety officials and health care workers, "one or two" adds up.