Penn, Michael Philip

views updated

Penn, Michael Philip


Education: Princeton University, A.B., 1993; Duke University, graduate certificate, 1995, M.A., 1996, Ph.D., 1999.


Home—Amherst, MA. Office—Department of Religion, Mount Holyoke College, 205 Skinner Hall, South Hadley, MA 01075. E-mail—[email protected]


National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Ames Research Center, Mt. View, CA, electron microscopy researcher, 1987-89; Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, Israel, recombinant DNA researcher, 1989; Palo Alto Veterans Hospital, Palo Alto, CA, immuno-cytochemistry researcher, 1989; Apple Computers, Sunnyvale, CA, software engineer, 1989-93; Pinewood High School, Los Altos, CA, teacher and debate and speech coach, 1990-91; Princeton High School, Princeton, NJ, teacher and debate coach, 1991-93; Durham Academy High School, Durham, NC, teacher and director of forensics program, 1994-99; Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, assistant professor of religion. Visiting lecturer, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA, 2000; visiting assistant professor, Haverford College, Haverford, PA, 2000-01.


Received awards from Guggenheim Foundation, National Center for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities, and American Academy of Religion.


Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 2005.

Contributor of articles to books, including Teaching the Bible: Practical Strategies for Classroom Instruction, Scholars Press (Atlanta, GA), 2005; Aramaic Studies in Judaism and Early Christianity, Eisenbrauns (Warsaw, Poland), 2007; and Religion Past and Present 5, Brill (Leiden, Netherlands), 2008. Contributor to periodicals, including Studia Patristica, Islamochristiana, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha, Journal of Early Christian Studies, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, Coptic Church Review, Religious Studies News, Church History, Review of Biblical Literature, National Women's Studies Association Journal, and Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy.


Mt. Holyoke College assistant professor of religion Michael Philip Penn specializes in the study of how communities of early Christians differentiated themselves from the rest of ancient society. A former molecular biologist, Penn spent years as a researcher and software engineer (his bachelor's thesis was on the use of computers and computer imaging to teach biology), and more years as a high school teacher and debate coach in California, New Jersey, and North Carolina. In addition to his work on the early Church, Penn also investigates the ways in which Christians in the Byzantine world reacted to the Islamic conquests of the seventh century—a project funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Center for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Academy of Religion.

In his first book, Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church, Penn demonstrates how early Christian worshipers took the ritual of the greeting kiss and made it a holy rite, a very significant development in the emerging Church. Saint Paul urged the residents of Corinth to "greet one another with a holy kiss," showing that ritual kissing was an important way to bring the community of belief closer together. In the ancient world, explained Jennifer Wright Knust in Church History, "public kissing was widely performed and imbued with multiple significations: one kissed family members, lovers, friends, and peers, both publicly and privately and, usually, on the mouth. Kisses were expected and familiar; thus a failure to kiss could be interpreted as a serious slight." In order to exploit the kiss as a holy gesture, Christians had to remove unwanted meanings from the ritual. As in the modern world, the most common use of the kiss in the ancient world was between lovers. "This prompted early Christian efforts to de-eroticize the kiss," Andrea Sterk wrote in the Medieval Review, "for example, by emphasizing its familial significance." "Other pagan usages," Sterk declared, "include the kiss of greeting, and kisses associated with reunion, celebration, agreement, and submission to rulers. Penn also notes the kiss's use as a form of persuasion, an ancient form of ‘kissing up,’ and compares ancient kissing of potential voters with the modern campaign phenomenon of ‘kissing babies’." "Since kissing was an ‘everyday gesture,’" Knust continued, "it was readily available for transformation into a socially productive ritual. Christians capitalized on established meanings of the kiss, modifying and appropriating shared beliefs to differentiate their own group. In each instance, ritual kissing interacted with the kiss's more commonplace appearance as a cultural gesture."

For these early believers, however, the kiss was neither only a symbolic act of greeting nor a way to promote group cohesion. It was also an important ritual, in which the Holy Spirit was physically exchanged between Christians. "Christian communities transformed the popular understanding of the physical exchange of souls (or spirit) through the act of kissing," declared reviewer George Kalantzis in the Catholic Historical Review, "and ‘employed this pneumatological model … to transfer Christ's spirit between community members, to express the community's solidarity, and to reenact a mythical time of original unity.’" Since the transfer of the Holy Spirit was one of the goals of the ritual of holy kissing, Christians refused the holy kiss to those who fell outside the group of believers. "By refusing to kiss pagans, Jews, and heretics," Kalantzis stated, "Christians differentiated between those who were not like us, too much like us, and claiming to be us, respectively."

Kissing was also used to differentiate within the group of believers. Among early Christians, said L. Edward Phillips in Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, "the kiss ritually construct[ed] the status of catechumens [individuals being prepared for baptism, or official entry into the community of the Church] by excluding them until they were baptized (‘becoming like’ them), and it delineated various hierarchical differences within the social body: the honoring of martyrs and confessors; the (eventual) segregation of men and women, and, finally, the (eventual) separation of laity and clergy. Penn concludes: ‘The kiss did more than just express the distinctions; as a productive act, it helped create them.’" In Kissing Christians, Phillips concluded, the author "has provided an important contribution to the study of Christian ritual practice, as well as Christian identity and social power configuration in the early period."



Catholic Historical Review, October 1, 2007, George Kalantzis, review of Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church, p. 891.

Church History, September 1, 2006, Jennifer Wright Knust, review of Kissing Christians, p. 651.

Journal of Theological Studies, April 1, 2007, Alistair Stewart-Sykes, review of Kissing Christians, p. 266.

Medieval Review, June 1, 2006, Andrea Sterk, review of Kissing Christians.

Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, fall, 2006, L. Edward Phillips, review of Kissing Christians, p. 272.


Mt. Holyoke College Web site, (May 22, 2008), "Michael Penn."

About this article

Penn, Michael Philip

Updated About content Print Article