When you engage in graduate education, your learning extends far beyond what’s in your textbooks. You also learn what’s in the unwritten syllabus—the unstated expectations of your classrooms and the larger guild. And you learn about yourself, about your hopes and fears, strengths and limitations. When I started my journey in theological education, it didn’t take long for my fears and limitations to come knocking at my door. And they haunted me as I began to imbibe various impressions of what a scholar is supposed to be, magnifying the gaps between my own abilities and the image I sought to realize.
As I sat down to write my papers, I was paralyzed by the fear of failure. I couldn’t write much of anything without the adrenaline rush sparked by an impending deadline. As the deadline loomed, jaws outstretched, I would write in a mad feverish dash toward the safety of the finish line before the beast swallowed me whole. And then as I turned in my work, I would wallow in shame and embarrassment, dreading to hear that all my weaknesses had been exposed.
And I worried that I didn’t have the dedication to be a “real” scholar. My mind often balked at the long hours of reading, wandering off again and again as I struggled to force my attention back to the page. And when I collapsed on breaks or couldn’t stand the sight of my dissertation anymore, all I wanted to do was escape into Jane Austen or Harry Potter. “Real” scholars dove into massive tomes about Assyrian iconography in their spare time.
And I doubted that I could ever enjoy scholarly success because I wasn’t prepared to follow the “standard academic path.” When people asked what I was going to do when I finished my PhD, I would say “have babies.” I wasn’t joking. (Actually, since it took me so long to complete my dissertation, I decided not to wait until I finished, defending 2-months pregnant with a 19-month-old in tow.) Even if I could have landed one of the few coveted tenure-track positions after graduation, I didn’t want to try to navigate all of the attendant expectations during my baby years. So I chose to adjunct and write part-time while serving as the primary caretaker for my three kids. And then our family discerned God calling us to our current church in Chicago, where my husband serves as a pastor. So now we’re geographically rooted, and nine years after graduating, I’ve still never applied for a full-time job.
I haven’t needed a full-time job to immerse myself in the things that drew me to this field. I’ve always loved that moment of discovery when I find a Hebrew wordplay or trace a key word through a passage or explore an intertextual parallel. And I experience deep joy in sharing those insights with my students and walking alongside them as they begin their own adventures of discovery. But in so many ways, I’ve felt like I didn’t fit in the academic world.
I wish I’d known earlier that God called me into this work so that I could bring my whole self to it, not so that I could contort myself into some scholarly mold.[i] I wish I’d known that the mastery I felt pressure to demonstrate but could never achieve was only an illusion anyway and that the fragments of knowledge I had were enough.[ii] I wish I’d known that I didn’t have to construct an artistic masterpiece on my own but could simply offer my fragments as beautiful gifts to form part of a communal mosaic. I wish I’d known that all the things I engaged in that seemed like “distractions” from “important scholarly work” were deeply significant and that they would actually feed my interpretive imagination. I wish I’d known that imagination was a key component in scholarly work.
It’s been a long journey of realizing these things and growing into an understanding of who God created me to be as a scholar—a woman–spiritual director–pastor’s wife–mother–Jane Austen- loving–teacher–writer—because all of those things are deeply interconnected. What’s made that growth possible are the friends I’ve journeyed with, friends I enjoy long conversations with at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and friends I’ve only ever met in print.
The “canon” of biblical studies research has largely been dominated by white Euro-American males, and for many years they were the primary voices I read. I’m so grateful for the countless things I learned from them, but I often felt some degree of disconnection. It wasn’t until more recently that I began to realize that I had different patterns of thinking than many of the white male scholars I’d been reading. When I came across essays on cultural ways of thinking, the words jumped off the page. The authors explained that academic theological discourse has largely been shaped by rational, linear, and individualistic ways of thinking but that many women and non-white scholars tend toward more holistic, relational, and experiential thinking.[iii] By feeding myself chiefly with scholarship in the former vein, I’d developed a limited vision for what scholarly discourse looked like and trained myself to speak in a language that never quite felt natural.
As I branched out and read more work by women and ethnic minority scholars, it began to quench the desperate thirst I didn’t even realize I had. I drank from the buckets of anger at injustice and hope in the God who makes all things right, drawn from the deep wells of the African American church by Dennis Edwards and Esau McCaulley.[iv] I sat at Wilda Gafney’s table and savored the feast of her “sanctified imagination.”[v] I rejoiced in the many ‘ezerim (“helpers,” see Gen 2:18) who supported Nancy deClaissé-Walford and thanked God for my own.[vi] I saw Hagar, perhaps for the first time, as I experienced her through Asian American and Egyptian Christian eyes in essays by Lai Ling Elizabeth Ngan and Safwat Marzouk.[vii] I mourned with Rizpah (see 2 Sam 21) and marveled at the courage, faith, and theological insight of the abuelitas whose stories are told by Kat Armas.[viii] And I was challenged to broaden my understanding of “neighbor” as I read Palestinian Christian scholar Naim Ateek’s reflections on the parable of the Good Samaritan from the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[ix] I resonate deeply with the ways these authors integrate the biblical text with their life experience, even when my own experiences are significantly different. Though I haven’t met most of them, these friends have become a lifeline, tethering me to a scholarly world where I can flourish and keeping my soul from withering under the unrelenting pressure to conform.
I’m still in the process of disentangling myself from all the (real or imagined) academic expectations that have kept me bound, but I have high hopes for the future. My hope is that every student and scholar in theological education, especially those on the margins, would be set free from the pressure to conform and from the expectation that they have to prove themselves by mastering their field. My hope is that there would always be room at the table for rational, linear, and individualistic thinkers and for those who think in more relational, holistic, and experiential ways. My hope is that we would all lift up our voices and sing in gloriously complex harmony rather than straining to hit the same note. My hope is that we would develop deep friendships of love and support and that we would challenge each other “as iron sharpens iron” (Prov 27:17), not to question anyone’s scholarly worth but to help us grow into all that God has called us to be. And my hope is that together we would forge a multitude of creative pathways for scholars to find success in using their gifts and skills to serve people in a variety of contexts.
[i] See further Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, Theological Education Between the Times (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), 6.
[ii] Ibid., 23–46.
[iii] Perry Shaw, “Culture, Gender, and Diversity in Advanced Theological Studies,” in Challenging Tradition: Innovation in Advanced Theological Education, ed. Perry Shaw and Havilah Dharamraj (Carlisle, UK: Langham, 2018], 89–90; Xiaoli Yang, “Poetry as Theology,” in Challenging Tradition, 432.
[iv] Dennis R. Edwards, Might from the Margins: The Gospel’s Power to Turn the Tables on Injustice (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald, 2020); Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020).
[v] Wilda Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville: Westminster: John Knox, 2017), 1–3.
[vi] Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, “Genesis 2: ‘It Is Not Good for the Human to Be Alone,’” Review and Expositor 103 (2006): 343–58.
[vii] Lai Ling Elizabeth Ngan, “Neither Here nor There: Boundary and Identity in the Hagar Story,” in Ways of Being, Ways of Reading: Asian American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Mary F. Foskett and Jeffrey Kah-Jin Kuan (St. Louis: Chalice, 2006), 70–83; Safwat Marzouk, “Interrogating Identity: A Christian Egyptian Reading of the Hagar-Ishmael Traditions,” in Colonialism and the Bible: Contemporary Reflections from the Global South, ed. Tat-siong Benny Liew and Fernando F. Segovia (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2018), 3–30.
[viii] Kat Armas, Abuelita Faith: What Women on the Margins Teach Us about Wisdom, Persistence, and Strength (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2021).
[ix] Naim Ateek, “Who Is My Neighbor?” Interpretation 62 (2008): 156–65.
Brittany Kim (PhD, Wheaton College) is an adjunct professor at North Park Theological Seminary, director of Every Voice: A Center for Kingdom Diversity in Christian Theological Education, spiritual director, pastor’s wife, and mother of three. She is also the author of “Lengthen Your Tent-Cords”: The Metaphorical World of Israel’s Household in the Book of Isaiah (Eisenbrauns) and co-author (with Charlie Trimm) of Understanding Old Testament Theology: Mapping the Terrain of Recent Approaches (Zondervan).