Texas Tech University

Renaissance Man: Associate Professor Studies Religious Thought in the Age of Enlightenment

Elyssa Sanders

March 9, 2022

Ryan Hackenbracht received a 2022 Chancellor’s Council Distinguished Research Award.

In February, the Texas Tech University System announced its 2022 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching and Research Awards to honor outstanding faculty members who provide exceptional opportunities for students both in and out of the classroom. We are highlighting the eight Texas Tech University faculty members who were recognized.

Ryan Hackenbracht, an associate professor of literature in the College of Arts & Sciences, is fascinated by the intersection of Christianity and literary discourse, particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries.

His research centers on the convergence of topics often considered to be mutually exclusive – spirituality and academia, religion and evolution, Christian doctrine and secularism.

Ryan Hackenbracht
Ryan Hackenbracht

His 2019 book, “National Reckonings: The Last Judgment and Literature in Milton's England,” examines the impact of the Renaissance-era society's expectation of an impending apocalypse on its literature. Hackenbracht is working on a second book, “Darwin in Eden: The Genesis Story in the Thought and Faith of the Evolutionists.”

After earning his master's and doctoral degrees from Pennsylvania State University in 2008 and 2012, respectively, Hackenbracht joined the Texas Tech Department of English faculty in 2013. He is the 2011 recipient of the Albert C. Labriola Award from the Milton Society of America and the 2012 recipient of the Natalie Zemon Davis Prize from the journal, Renaissance and Reformation. In 2014, Hackenbracht received the William A. Ringler Research Fellowship from The Huntington Library.

Most recently, he has been recognized with a 2022 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Research Award.

The Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching and Research Awards are given to individuals who exemplify teaching or research excellence and who have significantly advanced teaching or research efforts and are noted as leaders among colleagues and in their respective fields. Established in 2001, they are the highest honors given to Texas Tech University System faculty members.

Can you describe your research and its impact, both in academics and society?

How does literature reflect Christianity? How does the Bible inform our thinking about politics and society? These are some of the questions that drive my research. From the poetry of Shakespeare and Milton to the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, writers have long used Christian themes to shape their own literary narratives and explore radical ideas. I'm interested in this intersection between the two – in how Christian doctrines catalyze literary innovation and, vice versa, how literature opens up new ways of thinking about faith and community.

My book – “National Reckonings: The Last Judgment and Literature in Milton's England” (Cornell University Press 2019) – focused on apocalyptic expectations of Christ's Second Coming in the British Renaissance (1500-1700). The apocalypse, I found, was a powerful motivator in people's minds at the time, even though it was (and still is) an imagined event, one not yet realized in history. The book offers new insights into Renaissance religion, but also speaks to broader, non-academic interests in how religion molds much of our secular thinking, often without our realizing it. The separation of church and state notwithstanding, much of our political discourse today is shot through with religious verbiage and ideas. This speaks to the Bible's continued influence in our society, for Christians and non-Christians alike.

What projects are you working on at this time?

Currently, I'm working on a book titled “Darwin in Eden: The Genesis Story in the Thought and Faith of the Evolutionists.” The book of Genesis had a powerful grip on the minds of Darwin, Huxley, Tennyson and other Victorians who embraced the new science. On the one hand, Genesis was a false history to be discredited; on the other hand, it was a cherished reminder of a simpler time, before empiricism complicated belief. Milton's “Paradise Lost” – an epic poem about Adam and Eve and the fall of man – was pivotal to both ways of looking at Genesis. For Tennyson, it was a favorite model for his own poems. When Darwin could only take one book on the HMS Beagle, he took along “Paradise Lost.”

Clearly, the poem was important to evolutionists and I'm interested in how literature formed part of their discussions on evolution in the mid-19th century. From reading techniques to the nature of myth, Milton's poem offered Darwin and others a number of strategies for coming to terms with Genesis and biblical history.

What areas are you interested in for future research?

I continue to be interested in the role of Christianity, both in the English Renaissance and without. I'd like to do more work on the reception of Virgil's “Georgics” – a poem about farming, written by a virtuous pagan who was admired by Christian writers like Erasmus and Montaigne. Additionally, I've done some preliminary work, in the form of articles, on Christian materialism. This is a radical and controversial doctrine, whose Renaissance origins are obscure and little studied. I'd like to do some digging here into the works of Milton, Hobbes and Spinoza, who had no problem reconciling Christian truths with the belief that this world was it – a spiritual world did not exist. So, the question is, can Christianity work without the existence of a spiritual world? Do its doctrines still make sense if this physical world is all there is? I don't yet know the answer, but looking to Milton, Hobbes, and Spinoza, I'd like to see if I can find out. 

What rewards do you get from teaching?

Teaching is immensely rewarding in so many different ways! For one thing, it's exciting to talk to people with similar interests. For example, last week in my Bible as Literature class, we had a fantastic discussion about the many temptations facing the ancient Israelites. Reading Exodus in light of recent archaeological discoveries, we learned about ancestor worship through a plastered skull unearthed at Jericho and about the surprising presence of household gods (teraphim) in the Old Testament. So, this is a ton of fun and exciting for me. While I hope students learn from my lectures, I also learn a great deal from their questions and comments.

I also love meeting people who are in the early stages of exciting careers in law, medicine, agricultural sciences, etc. My Sports & Adventure Literature class, for instance, has a lot of pre-med majors who consistently impress me with their medical knowledge – they are going to be fantastic doctors and surgeons, for sure. One student was telling me about how he's planning to go into social work because he wants to help the less fortunate in his community – whoa! Meeting young people like that is inspiring, to say the least, and reminds me of the quality of students we have here at Texas Tech.

What motivated you to pursue a career in academia?

I always wanted to talk about books – I was that annoying kid who sat for an hour in my professor's office, asking a million questions! So, for me, it was pretty logical to chart a course in academia, where I could continue having discussions like that for years to come. I also benefited from caring professors in college who recognized my interest in graduate school and helped prepare me for it. They were outstanding teachers and amazing mentors – I think about them often. The opportunity to help students of my own was a major motivating factor. I've got former advisees who are now getting doctorates at Notre Dame, Penn State and Texas Christian University, among other places. I'm so proud of them and excited to see where the future takes them.

How has Texas Tech helped you advance your research and teaching?

Texas Tech has a wonderful community of pre-modern (classical, medieval and Renaissance) faculty who are impressive scholars and inspiring teachers, and I've benefited a great deal from their friendship. For instance, our Medieval & Renaissance Studies Center offers opportunities for collaboration between faculty and students across art history, musicology, history, English and philosophy – it's a wonderful place to see what other people are working on. Additionally, our Humanities Center is a tremendous asset. When I was working on my first book, the Humanities Center helped me out by providing fellowships and grants – the beautiful illustrations in “National Reckonings,” for example, were made possible through their funding! I feel very fortunate to be at a university where the humanities are held in high regard and where my work on the history of Christianity is respected and appreciated.

Who has had the biggest impact on you and your career, and why?

C. S. Lewis. I've always been deeply moved by his works and thought. As a Christian apologist, he's well known. But Lewis also was a professor of Renaissance literature with an encyclopedic knowledge of history, a lively writing style and an uncanny ability for making connections other people missed. I don't always agree with his findings, but I do admire the zeal with which he explored the relationship between literature and Christianity – I even taught a graduate seminar on Lewis last year. I also admire him for insisting that academia is not the end-all, be-all of learning. What we do in the university should engage the general public, Lewis argued, and people outside of academia deserve to be part of the conversation, too.