Dr. Brian Pennington: man beneath the stairs

Dr. Brian Pennington’s Harry Potter-esque office beneath the stairs is perhaps the coziest, and certainly the tiniest, of Maryville College offices.  Photographs of family and foreign travels cover the walls, trinkets and sculptures fill the spaces around the room, and shelves of neatly organized books make the space very much a reflection of Dr. Pennington, associate professor of theology at MC.

Pennington is perhaps best known around campus for his world-cultures courses; however, his education extends far beyond the parameters of the course content.

Pennington attended Georgetown University, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in theology.  Afterwards, he found a home at Emory University, where he earned his master’s degree in theology as well as his PhD.

When asked how he became interested in religious studies, particularly in Hindu studies, Pennington told a fascinating story.

At 16 years old, he and a friend were at a mall Cineplex in Grand Rapids, Mich.  While walking through the parking lot, a large van door opened in front of them, and out stepped several men in orange robes, beads adorning their necks.

These men were Hare Krishnas, or members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a group primarily in the U.S. whose members build their lifestyles around the religious teachings of Krishna.

These robed men gave Pennington a copy of the “Bhagavad-Gita,” and his interest was sparked.  This experience, coupled with a strong Polish-Catholic upbringing, led Pennington to begin his exploration of religion.

“When you’re accustomed to a universe populated with saints and angels it is quite easy to study any religious practice that is very ritualistic,” Pennington said.

With a particular interest in Hinduism, Pennington has spent much of his time studying India, spending summer after summer in Bhutan.

“It’s very much a place that is a second home to me,” Pennington said, 18 years after his first visit to the country.

While he studies religion and development in northern India, his wife, Dr. Amy Allocco, studies women’s rituals in southern India.

Dr. Allocco is a professor of Hindu studies at Elon University, located near Greensboro, N.C.  Pennington and Allocco have two teenage sons, aspiring musicians who often travel with their parents.

When he isn’t globetrotting or teaching, Pennington is still hard at work.  This is his sixth  year on the Board of Directors at the American Academy of Religion, the largest organization of religious scholars in the U.S.  His second book, “Teaching Religion and Violence,” will be released very soon, as Pennington somehow finds time to write in spite of his busy schedule.  This second book follows his first, “Was Hinduism Invented?”

In September 1997, as Pennington was finishing his studies at Emory, he came across an advertisement for a position teaching theology at a college in East Tennessee.

After a phone interview with Dr. Susan Schneibel, the head of what was then called the humanities department, and a personal interview with former academic vice president Dean Bolden,  Pennington was offered and gladly accepted the position at MC.

“I loved the students at Maryville College,” Pennington said of his reason for such enthusiastic relocation to a place where he knew virtually no one, to a school he’d never even heard of.  “The student population here is very distinctive.  They have a strong devotion to service in the community and on campus.”

After years with the college, Pennington is very happy with his decision to accept the position.

“There’s a sense of commitment that pervades faculty, staff and students. People’s love of this school and dedication to its future is something I’ve really been fortunate to be a part of.”

Next semester, Pennington will be teaching a course on the “Mahabharata,” the Sanskrit epic which, paired with the “Ramayana,” forms the basis for a lot of beliefs and values of the Hindu people.

Students would be lucky to have an opportunity to study this subject with a professor who certainly has a unique personal insight on the culture and most certainly presents the information in an enthusiastic and enthralling manner.

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