Doug Adams, pioneering professor in religion and the arts, dies

July 25, 2007

Doug Adams, professor of Christianity and the arts at Pacific School of Religion for 31 years, died at the home of friends in Jackson, CA on July 24, 2007. As a scholar and teacher, Adams played a leading role internationally in the field of religion and the arts, and was beloved by generations of students. Adams also headed the doctoral faculty in Art and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), a consortium of nine seminaries, including Pacific School of Religion (PSR), in Berkeley, CA.

"With his attention to the environment of worship, Doug Adams almost single-handedly transformed worship on the West Coast," said William McKinney, president of Pacific School of Religion. "You don't see unadorned sanctuaries on this coast: They come alive with color and art. Doug attended to the entire sensory experience of worship and had an amazing and wide-ranging influence."

A gifted teacher who brought great enthusiasm, personal attention, and generosity of spirit—as well as fine wines—to his students, friends, and countless gatherings, Adams was awarded GTU's Sarlo Excellence in Teaching Award in 2006. "There has been nobody more attentive to students," noted McKinney. "The time and energy and resources he devoted to them was legendary."

"Most of his students absolutely loved him because of his passion and dedication," said Hilary Marckx, a pastor at Geyserville Christian Church in California who studied under Adams at PSR and now teaches courses on photography and religion there. "Before you asked him a question, you had to ask yourself, 'Do I have the energy for the answer?' He just exploded with information."

The Sacred Dance Guild held its national festival in Berkeley this past week and dedicated it to Adams, who served as both national president and national program director of the Guild and served on its board of directors for more than three decades. He edited a dozen books on dance and religion as well as writing two books on that subject.

His main contribution in scholarship was in the field of visual art history and religion, with a focus on contemporary visual art. He was national president of the Society for Art, Religion, and Contemporary Culture and head of the section on Art and Religion of the American Academy of Religion. Adams' most-heralded scholarly book was Transcendence with the Human Body in Art: George Segal, Stephen De Staebler, Jasper Johns, and Christo (1991). Another of his favorite fields was biblical humor, and his best-selling book, The Prostitute in the Family Tree: Discovering Humor and Irony in the Bible (1997), is currently in its 10th printing.

"Doug supported all the arts—including dance, music, photography, painting, and film," said Mary Donovan Turner, PSR's vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. "But art to Doug wasn't just about beauty. It was also about relationship, ambiguity, perspective, voice, and, ultimately, justice."

Doug Adams was born in DeKalb, Illinois in 1945 and received his BA from Duke University in 1967, his MA and Master of Divinity from PSR in 1970, and his Doctorate of Theology from the GTU in 1974. He was a post-doctoral Smithsonian Fellow in Art History at the American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. His teaching career at Pacific School of Religion began in 1976; he taught courses in preaching and worship before moving into the arts.

His proudest achievement during his 31 years of teaching at PSR was founding, in 1987, the Center for the Arts, Religion, and Education (CARE), an affiliated center of Graduate Theological Union, which has grown to offer 30 courses on art and religion every year, serving over 400 GTU students.

On the cover of his book, Congregational Dancing in Christian Worship (1971), is a reproduction of a Peanuts cartoon with a hopping Snoopy saying: "If you can't dance, you should at least be able to do a happy hop!" "That perfectly expresses a lot about Doug," said Carla De Sola, whom Adams brought from New York City to direct the dance program at CARE in 1989. She remembers dancing down the aisle of a church with Doug at a summer workshop at PSR: "We danced with large wastepaper baskets for donations in order to encourage large gifts!"

"Doug liked to say that Pacific School of Religion produces a certain edginess and a certain quirkiness," recalled President McKinney. "This seminary does produce such qualities, and both were splendidly embodied in Doug. He could have been the product of no other school."

Doug Adams is survived by his sister, Sally Urban, and her husband, Kenneth Urban, and three nieces and their husbands. His wife, Margo, died in 2005.

Pacific School of Religion will hold a memorial service on campus this fall, scheduled for Oct. 14. Contributions may be sent to the Doug Adams Fund for Arts Ministries, Practicality, and Hospitality at the Center for Arts, Religion, and Education (CARE) at Graduate Theological Union, 2400 Ridge Road, Berkeley, CA 94709.