Author Archives: christa

How Historical Criticism Challenged My Faith . . . Then Strengthened It By Karen Keen

“Students like you scare me.” Those were the words of a well-known biblical scholar at a well-known evangelical seminary when I sent an enthusiastic inquiry about the possibility of studying under him in a PhD program. I mistakenly conveyed passion for making a difference in the world, and he decided my zeal was detrimental to objective research. Deflated, and not a little irritated, I shot back, “Don’t you find any greater meaning in your work than intellectual entertainment?” When pressed, Prof. G (as I’ll call him) conceded that, yes, he did hope his research and teaching had significance beyond the academic tower. But his answer did little to assuage my perplexity at his initial response. Needless to say, I did not apply to that school.

That said, I came to understand Prof. G’s concern: some Christian students take the Bible out of context, devotionalizing it in blind religious fervor rather than producing serious scholarship. His concern was valid and, yet, his jadedness caused him to mistake my enthusiasm for naïve idealism. Somewhere along the line, he had learned to protect his reputation from the skepticism of mainstream biblical scholars who often view evangelicals as deficient in academic rigor. Prof. G.’s response reflected overcompensation to the point of suppressing his own passion and that of students like me.

I was certainly passionate—not with blind fervor, but deep longing to know and follow God. I stepped into the world of biblical scholarship out of love for Scripture, enrolling in seminary while still working full-time in student affairs at a local university. Initially attending seminary was my expensive “hobby.” I simply wanted to learn. But the joy it brought me left no doubt that I was meant to do this full-time. I dreamed of getting a PhD in biblical studies. I began to look at programs and decided to first pursue a ThM. I sensed that my conservative Baptist seminary, while preparing me well for a close reading of the text, had not exposed me sufficiently enough to mainstream scholarship. After being accepted to Duke Divinity School, my evangelical professors congratulated me, but also expressed caution. In my circles, Duke was considered a liberal institution that might lead me astray (a misconception, I realized, once I got there).

My professors were right that delving into historical criticism and other mainstream methodologies would impact the way I understand and read Scripture. Similarly, doctoral work at Marquette University would take me beyond the simple world in the text, to both the world behind and in front of it. But rather than leading me astray, it took me deeper into truth. Like many students from an evangelical background, I was shocked by how much I had not been taught in church or my Baptist seminary. Sometimes my gaps in knowledge left me embarrassed. At Duke, I read Elephantine papyri for an Aramaic course, which mention a Jewish temple in Egypt. Before I could catch myself, I blurted out in class, “But there’s only one temple, and it’s in Jerusalem.” My classmates and teacher looked at me quizzically, and I immediately felt foolish for my ignorance.

I began to ask new questions, including what does the world behind the text mean for me as a Christian? At my previous seminary, I was told it didn’t matter because, ultimately, the biblical authors provide their interpretation of history. They selectively reported on events to advance a particular inspired message from God. Other historical facts, then, were superfluous for the spiritual life. And yet, as I studied the world behind the text, I realized it, too, had something truthful to say. Sometimes that truth conflicted with ways I had been taught to read Scripture. The tension between historical criticism and theological interpretation challenged my faith. In retrospect, that tension was reflected in Prof. G’s response to me. He was an evangelical desiring to be seen as a legitimate scholar within the guild at large. That required him to care about mainstream methodologies. Yet, he hadn’t reconciled the two in his heart. Some part of him believed he needed to suppress religious passion to be a reputable scholar. While my seminary responded to the mainstream guild by ignoring it, Prof. G craved its validation. Neither approach seemed right to me.

It’s true that the academe at-large often frowns at the mixture of religious life with scholarship. It doesn’t know how theology and historical criticism fit together. As my studies advanced, I wasn’t sure either. I went through what many evangelical students experience when they are exposed to historical-critical scholarship: disorientation. Historical-criticism sheds important light on the way ancient culture shaped the articulation of the biblical authors’ theology. This knowledge was both helpful and daunting. As I wrestled with the human traits in Scripture, I noticed problems with certain theological interpretations that I hadn’t seen before, interpretations that were not well reconciled with historical facts. I was moving closer to truth, but it was new and unsettling.

For awhile, I was uncertain how to read the biblical text as Scripture. It felt as though I had to choose between historical criticism and theology. Yet, only studying the world behind the text felt vapid, and only engaging in theological reading felt dishonest. I missed how Scripture used to come alive for me, but I could not go back to what now seemed like a naïve reading of the Bible. What I needed is what philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls a “second naïveté.” Regarding faith, he wrote: “No longer, to be sure, the first faith of the simple soul, but rather the second faith of one who has engaged in hermeneutics, faith that has undergone criticism, post-critical faith.”[1]

Over the past several years, my life as a scholar has been enriched by a second naïveté, a post-critical faith. That process has involved bringing together both historical criticism and theology, seeking to understand how both of these truths fit together. Murray Rae’s History and Hermeneutics has proved helpful for me in this regard. As Rae observes, history is theological.[2] He rejects the common bifurcation in scholarship between history and theology. God is active in history, including beyond what is mentioned by the biblical authors. Scripture itself testifies that Jesus did and said many things beyond what is recorded (John 21:25).

Last fall, Eerdmans published my book The Word of a Humble God: The Origins, Inspiration, and Interpretation of Scripture. It bears the fruit of my years wrestling with the tension between historical criticism and theological interpretation. The tension has given way to a cooperative relationship where the truths drawn out by both methodological approaches yield new insights into the character of God and the nature of Scripture. I began to look for God’s activity in ancient scribal culture, manuscript traditions, redaction, and canon formation. What was God doing when it comes to the making of the Bible? What purpose might God have intended in the way it comes to us?

Surprisingly, historical investigation is the very thing that allowed me to see the humility of God. How astonishing that an all-powerful God collaborates with human beings in the making of the Bible. God could have dropped a book from heaven, but didn’t. God formed human beings to share power with them, granting them stewardship of the whole earth and promising to share a throne (Gen 1:26; Eph 2:6; Rev 3:21). God’s humility is demonstrated in choosing to empower human beings with spiritual gifts of prophesy and sacred craftmanship (à la Exod 31:1-6).

It was through historical criticism that I began to see a community of faith emerge through the communal process of Scripture’s formation, as prophet and scribe worked together, as generations across time contributed to the project. I won’t give away too many spoilers but The Word of a Humble God looks at the historical process of how the Bible was made and ponders its theological significance. We need not avoid historical criticism as irrelevant nor elevate it as academically superior. Rather, God is with us as we journey through time. History is theological.

Karen R. Keen (ThM, Duke) is a biblical scholar and spiritual care provider with The Redwood Center for Spiritual Care and Education. Her research interests include hermeneutics, ethics, reception history, and the nature and function of the Bible. Karen’s goal is to make biblical scholarship accessible, particularly as it intersects with the pressing socio-cultural concerns of our time. She frequently comes alongside pastors and Christian leaders to support their work in building up the Body of Christ.

[1] Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 26.

[2] Murray A. Rae, History and Hermeneutics (New York: T&T Clark, 2005).

You Guys, We’ve Got a Language Problem by Kendra Weddle

I thought I had arrived: a tenure-track position at a Christian university. Excited—and naïve—I settled into my office that mid-July eagerly anticipating the opportunity to teach and to create new collegial bonds. While my status as one of the new faculty members ensured many introduced themselves and offered genuine welcome, the reality of being the new female hire in the religion department also meant I was a spectacle: who was this woman willing to throw in her lot with that male bastion of ten?

My academic honeymoon ended before it began as I learned firsthand the politics of change. In establishing an inclusive language requirement, I had set myself apart—a target, really—for students, parents, and administrators to see me as a problem. Before long I was labeled by students (and perhaps by some faculty and staff) as the campus “feminazi.” An issue of the campus newspaper featured me in a large cartoon, depicting me with a “hitleresque” mustache in front of seated students wearing prison garb. Speaking from the lectern, I was presented by the cartoonists as claiming “Jesus was a woman.”

Shortly after I achieved tenure, I left that university and began teaching at an institution with a denominational affiliation, but less directly tied to specific faith claims. I was surprised, however, when I discovered that, even there, I was one of the very few professors to require inclusive language. Even though the administration supported my feminist convictions in theory, the university structure was hierarchical and those who filled the highest positions were overwhelmingly male. While there, I had an encounter with my supervisor where he articulated an imaginary scenario with sexist and sexual overtones. It was such an appalling statement that I failed to realize what had occurred until reflecting on it many hours later.

I share these experiences not to hurl accusations into the past, but rather as illustrations of how enshrined sexism in institutions of higher education perpetuates itself, affecting students, faculty, and staff, alike. If we want to create different kinds of institutions, ones that are egalitarian in practice as well as theory, there must first be an awareness of and dedication to changing the relationship between language and power.

Whether one is conscious of it or not, language shapes thought, enabling people to make sense of the world. This means that words can do harm by perpetuating stereotypes and marginalizing groups or individuals. More positively, words can be employed to increase connections and build more equitable systems. In all cases, the language we use makes a crucial difference.

As I’ve written elsewhere, our culture’s exclusive language makes women invisible and reinforces sexism. How many times, for example, have you heard the phrase “you guys” used in a group of all genders? I’ve asked this question several times and among many different people and often the response is that they don’t see the problem. Of course, “you guys” means everyone. Try turning the tables and address the same group as “you girls” and suddenly our linguistic sexism raises its head. No one would ever think “you girls” means everyone.

So, invisibility is one problem, but so is the way we denigrate girls and women by language. Phrases like “throws like a girl,” “woman driver,” and “what a wuss,” are only just a few ways we harm women with our words. While this harm is difficult to quantify, a study in 2020 confirmed the relationship between gendered language and gender roles. “It’s the reasons why,” Odessa S. Hamilton writes, “professional women are more likely to be relegated to stereotypically feminine tasks in the workplace, such as note-taking, event organization, and coffee runs, while men in the same orbit are instinctively selected for delegation, supervision, and client-facing tasks.”

Current conversations about gender and language are being shaped by greater awareness to trans and non-binary persons. Because of this, faith-based colleges and universities are well-positioned to observe and employ this as an opportunity to stand with those who are on the front lines of being marginalized and harmed. This is a time to take seriously the ways in which our language either builds bridges of understanding and connection or puts up barriers that create more division.

Here are ways some suggestions for changing campus culture:

  1. If your institution does not have an inclusive language policy, implement one. This should be used across the university so that there are no inconsistencies. And please, no more use of the exclusive “freshman.” “First-year students” is an easy substitute and it alerts students that the place they have chosen takes care in how all are welcomed. Making this known up front also provides a ready-made teachable moment, not only in all classes, but also in other places like registration, student life, and faith-based activities. Review the catalog and all university-wide materials to ensure that there are not silos on campus where exclusive language persists. This should include materials produced by offices such as admissions, financial aid, and athletics. In addition, syllabi for full-time, adjuncts, and/or occasional faculty should include the inclusive language policy adapted by the university.
  2. Provide a common resource to include in all syllabi that not only introduces students to the inclusive language policy, but also utilizes specific illustrations of how to edit writing that is exclusive so that it becomes inclusive. In other words, reviewing the syllabus should be an opportunity to emphasize the importance of language in creating a community of learners. I realize it is sometimes an uphill battle to get faculty to agree. If, however, the importance of language is not maintained by the whole, it will quickly devolve into one more place where marginalization becomes the norm.
  3. Expand the language and metaphors used for divinity. In all likelihood, this is the most important and also the most challenging change. Even theologically progressive institutions struggle with how we talk about God and some continue to believe this indispensable work is unnecessary. Nevertheless, Mary Daly’s prescient statement that “if God is male, then male is God,” has become strikingly perceptive in our current cultural milieu where masculinity masquerades as divine-inspired power.

While I no longer work as a university professor, instead bringing my knowledge, skills, and training into the context of a church community, I still labor to address the challenges of how we communicate with and about each other. In these efforts, I’ve been inspired by Nelle Morton (The Journey Home) who identified and encouraged people to hear each other into speech. She took to heart the realization that we connect with others only when we create truly open space, where the process of deep listening—the kind that always comes first—cultivates the ability to speak truth to power.

Kendra Weddle bio: Kendra Weddle is scholar-in-residence at Northaven Church in Dallas, Texas, where she enjoys writing liturgy, preaching, and teaching in small group settings. She is currently collaborating with Rev. Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton on a book of inclusive hymns and worship materials. Her website is

In the Wilderness with God by Noel Forlini Burt

“The narrative of faith is characteristically about a journey in and through the wilderness.” 1] So begins Walter Brueggemann’s marvelous book A Wilderness Zone. Brueggemann understands wilderness to involve vulnerability and dislocation, coupled with fear and anger, all elements of Israel’s original wilderness sojourn which are present in our contemporary social crisis. Brueggemann’s work is significant for the way it weaves biblical theology with the contemporary socio-political concerns of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of Trumpism, and economic disparity supported by capitalism and the cheap labor that makes that very capitalism possible and sustainable. In some ways, the global pandemic ushered in nothing new. Trumpism merely highlighted what was already present among us—an unwillingness at a political level to engage with those different from ourselves, a weariness and xenophobia that drives our policies about immigration and boundary or border crossing of any kind, a mistrust and even disgust of brown and black bodies and communities, and a denial of science rooted in mistrust of medical authority. Brueggemann’s work underscores what the last six or seven years have already shown us—that wilderness is not a concept relegated only to the pages of the Bible. Wilderness remains part of our own lived experience in the here and now. Further, Brueggemann’s A Wilderness Zone is a decidedly Christian book. He orients his work squarely in the biblical story. Brueggemann reminds us—the narrative of faith is a journey through wilderness.

This means that for people of faith, wilderness is a journey we takewith God.Wilderness is the part of our faith journey that in fact shapes and stretches the very faith we proclaim. As such, our experiences of wilderness raise questions of faith that we might not grapple with in other seasons of life with God. When the world begins to bottom out around us, suddenly our theological systems undergo a kenosis, an emptying, a bottomless collapse. Theologically and spiritually, we become children again. This childlike vulnerability awakens in us a curiosity that dismantles the very adult and systemized language we develop in higher education generally and in seminary particularly. In short, our experiences of wilderness collapse the language we have for and about God.

Brueggemann’s work on wilderness, as well as my new book, Hope in the Wilderness: Spiritual Reflections for When God Feels Far Away, also reveals that our personal experiences shape our scholarship. While Brueggemann’s work largely addresses the global crisis of the pandemic, thus examining wilderness at the macrocosmic level, Hope in the Wilderness addresses interior spaces of wilderness. I began writing about wilderness in the wake of a personal crisis. While that crisis is no longer in the foreground of my life, the experience of it remains in the background of the research and writing that I do, in some ways continuing to drive my own research on the subject. In the Academy, it has been my experience that our disciplinary subjects find us. After spending time speaking and writing on the subject, I have also found that wilderness is a distressingly portable image. Most of us have experienced some form of spiritual or existential wilderness. Out of nowhere, The Big Terrible Thing happens (the cancer diagnosis, the job termination, the dissolution of an important relationship). Or, out of nowhere, life becomes startingly barren—the usual things upon which we have relied are stripped away (our self-determination and resilience, the nearness of our friends, or the felt nearness of God). Perhaps a significant birthday compels us to reexamine our priorities and shift our paradigms. Perhaps a major move or career change proves more disorienting than we had imagined. Any number of things can plunge us into a metaphorical wilderness in which the life we had once known seems very far away indeed.

For those of us who make our vocational home in theological education, these experiences texture us not just theologically, not just in what we say about God or believe about God. More importantly, if we are present to our own experiences and to those around us, our wildernesses can become the center from which we teach. Academics need not bifurcate head and heart—we bring all that we are with us into the classroom. If we are people of prayer and not only of study, the wisdom or compassion we glean from our wilderness experiences can ricochet beyond us out into the hearts and minds of people we may never know. When I consider my own scholarship on biblical wilderness or any other topic, this is the most I can hope for.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Wilderness Zone (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021), 1.

Noel Forlini Burt teaches and lectures widely in the intersection of Bible and spiritual formation. An academic, spiritual director, retreat leader, and author, Noel believes the Bible is a deep well from which people can draw in their own spiritual formation. Her publications include Hope in the Wilderness: Spiritual Reflections for When God Feels Far Away (Cascade Publishing, 2022), Encounters in the Dark: Identity Formation in the Jacob Story (Semeia, 2020), and articles in The Other Journal, The Journal for Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, and others.


“Just Say No!” by Gabrielle Thomas

Anyone who grew up in the eighties or had children in the eighties will most likely associate these words with the anti-drugs campaign that spanned the US and the UK. My only recollection of “Just Say No!” as a young teen is the “Grange Hill” song. These lyrics still reverberate in my head. The song is not great. Consider yourself warned if you decide to google it– it’s an earworm.

Wars on drugs aside, these words are a useful refrain for women in academia. In fact, I wrote this little mantra on a sticky note and pinned it to my desk where it remained for a number of years. I did not take it down until I trained myself to pause before accepting an invitation to write, speak, or join someone else’s project.

Why did I need my sticky so prominently placed?

  1. The first reason is positive. I love to inspire people and so if you invite me to speak I’m going to want to say “yes” in the hope of encouraging/educating some folks. I also find other people’s projects interesting and so being part of these is fun for me, another “yes.” Lastly, I’m a team player and enjoy contributing to something other than just my own work. However, these days I am invited to do more than is physically possible. Learning to say “no” was essential for me.
  2. The second reason is negative. During my PhD, I was concerned that each invitation would be the last one and so I felt that I must say “yes” because no further invitations would follow. This was a real issue for me early on in my academic career and even now it’s occasionally present as a background voice. One could say that it’s an academic version of FOMO. An older, wiser and more experienced friend suggested that I keep a list of invitations I’d refused. This was good advice. I still keep that list because I find it a helpful record and it reminds me that another invitation is around the corner.

Why is saying no so important for women in the academy?

  1. Your own life matters. Your time matters. Your research matters. Does saying “yes” mean that you’ll miss out on valuable time for your own research and writing? Or, dare I say it, will you miss out on time for something “fun”?
  2. Avoid burnout. Saying no helps manage time and energy so that you don’t take on more than you can realistically achieve.
  3. Creates a new culture of healthy boundaries (much needed in the academy).
  4. Makes space for someone else to respond. Even better if you know someone who might like to say yes to and would benefit from the opportunity.
  5. Better to say no to that invitation to contribute to an edited collection than to let people down in a few years’ time when you realise you cannot meet the submission date.

So, you’ve politely declined. What happens next?

  1. Often, nothing. Sensible people will accept that whatever they are asking is not for you at this time.
  2. Sometimes, there will be pushback. Not so long ago, I was invited by an editor of a peer-reviewed journal to write a piece contributing to a series he was running. He framed the invitation flatteringly, explaining that he could not think of any scholar more suitable for writing this particular piece than me (really!). I wrote back politely, explaining that I could not commit to the article because I simply have too much on my plate (I’d just moved jobs and was going through all te things for relocation). Rather than thanking me for my response he tried again, “But we really want a woman to write this and I don’t know any women other than you in your discipline” (reader, I kid you not!). I remained firm in my original response and he now ignores me at conferences. I can live with that more easily than if I’d given in and written the article for him. But, why do I share this little tale? Because women will sometimes experience pushback but it’s worth standing your ground.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should be declining every invitation we receive. But with so many people burning out after the pandemic we need a culture of pausing before we respond. Taking time to weigh the pros and cons. Chatting it through a colleague if we are unsure.

If you can’t think of any reason to say “yes,” then “Just Say No.”

Gabrielle Thomas is Assistant Professor of Early Christianity and Anglican Studies at Candler School of Theology of Emory University. She is ordained in the Church of England and serves as Theologian in Community at St Luke’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta. Her publications include The Image of God in the Theology of Gregory of Nazianzus (Cambridge University Press, 2019), For the Good of the Church: Unity, Theology and Women (SCM Press, 2021) and articles in Modern Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, Exchange, and Ecclesiology

Doing Fragile Theology by Tanya Kundu

Photo by Tanya Kundu

When anyone new asks what I am doing my PhD on, there is generally a slight ripple of laughter around the room as I try and describe the latest development and collection of interlocutors. A kind listener might be in for a long story, another might be in for a bit of a mess as I try and cover a lot of ground very quickly.

Similarly, if anyone were to ask me why I am doing my PhD, or why I switched from English to Theology, they might be in for another multi-faceted story. Part of it involved a convenient footnote four years ago in some secondary literature on devotional poetry talking about radical prophetic women in the 17th century. Part of it involves a long-standing fascination with all questions theological, such that as a child I would try and distract my mother before going to sleep by announcing my confusion about why God didn’t destroy evil just as she turned out the light. Part of it involves a sudden broadening of faith and the way I perceived the world, how I came to terms with and celebrated my queer identity, how I reread Scripture, how I slowly forgave the church I was a part of. Part of it involved learning how to be right and wrong at the same time, in different contexts and to different people, and caring about those people.

During this time of transition and learning, I emerged with an agency over how I interpreted the world, faith, and God that I had never really experienced before. I could change my mind, people could change their minds, and the world did not cave in and swallow me up. There were choices involved in who and what held authority, and where I located trustworthiness. I had moved from the certainty that characterised my childhood faith to something less stable, more fragile, which I had to take responsibility for. I also gave myself the grace to make mistakes in the process, to explore and push boundaries. And I have found, in the midst of this, that I can love God even when I don’t know God, when God takes less obvious forms, and that this might be a new form of knowing.

A lot of my research centres around the fragility of theology, how we take care amidst ambiguity, and how and why we centralise certain people and things. It has been a joy to start understanding how and why my faith has been structured, how doctrines were shaped, and how the lives and experiences of theologians became part of the scaffolding of what we discern as true. It has also been immensely freeing to start reading theology having already been denounced as somewhat heretical, and to be honest in the process that I would prefer to be kind than right, and that compassion takes precedence over coherence.

I have always been drawn to between-spaces, half-expressed things, the kind of truths that slip by as you glimpse them. I have just written an article on T. S. Eliot’s ‘Marina’ (and queer use, and the unwieldy process of forgiveness), partly because the lines ‘Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet / Under sleep, where all the waters meet’ have haunted me for years with their quiet, translucent beauty. I would love to articulate the contours of this translucent space, partly because it is a space I have always lived in, a chameleon identity between races and sexualities. It is my hope, as I write the PhD, that we might treat fragile things and spaces with the care they deserve. That if how we talk about God and how we construct doctrine, does not require robustness or coherence to be taken seriously, we might emerge with a richer, more textured theology, full of incongruent people and experiences.

And yet these half-expressed things are different, I think, from a quick appeal to mystery. They exist in space and time, they can be loved, they can be lingered upon and wagered upon. And I think it is important to talk well about our priorities of attention. Why have we chosen our interlocutors? How long do we take risks for? Where do we see authority, and why – and really why? My hope is that spending time examining these questions, whatever we are working on, can help us disagree without arriving at a compromise that inevitably ends up reinforcing the status quo. To find common ground not by softening the edges of our convictions, but by intentionally carving a space with those edges that we can both inhabit, for a time, and from which we can care for the fragility of our world.

Tanya Kundu is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge writing about the fragility of theology, which often involves putting Augustine in conversation with queer and disability theory. She also works part time for the Aspire programme at local charity Romsey Mill, which runs youth groups for autistic children and young people. 

We Need to Keep Talking about Sexism by Sophia R.C. Johnson

I recently submitted my PhD thesis for examination to the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. In celebration, I announced this on Twitter, including a reflection on how I had made it here despite being told I was not good enough at various times in my life. I specifically mentioned how multiple men during my undergraduate years had told me that graduate studies and academia were not for women. In the days leading up to my submission, I had remembered one particular instance, after I had already been accepted to Cambridge for my masters, when a fellow (male) biblical studies student asked me if graduate studies was really a prudent choice when I likely would not finish once I settled down to have a family.[1]

“Why waste the money [on graduate studies] when you could be saving up for your family’s future?”

To be honest, I never took these words to heart. From a young age, my parents had told me I could be anything I wanted to be, and even encouraged me to have a career before being getting married. As they helped me fund my graduate studies, they certainly did not think it was a waste of our family’s money. I knew many women from much more conservative backgrounds who had faced much worse pushback and stigma in their communities. So, if anything, this story became something I laughed about with my girlfriends while we set out to do amazing things in the world. I only brought it up in my submission announcement because it made the triumph that much sweeter to know I proved those who doubted me wrong.

What surprised me were so many comments shocked to hear this blatant sexism still alive and well in the world.[2]

“Do people still say graduate studies are not for women? Unbelievable.”

“Really?! Who said grad studies and academia aren’t for women…!!??”

“Can’t believe those attitudes [exist] in the 21st century.”

“I’m not sure who these days would tell a woman that women’s aspirations end at a certain age or qualification.”

One commentor found this so unbelievable that they, in fact, did not believe me.

“No one told you that. It’s a cheap ploy to get social media cred. Pathetic.”

However, there were a few comments voicing similar experiences.

“Our head technician said to me ‘I don’t know why they let you girls do phds. You just go off and have babies.’”

“My university careers advisor told me he wouldn’t recommend me for a post grad in English literature for exactly the same reason you were given.”[3]

The prevalence of sexism within biblical studies and adjacent fields was all too fresh for scholars active on social media, as just two months ago, a male academic claimed in a YouTube video that Francesca Stavrakopoulou, one of the most eminent Hebrew Bible scholars of our time, was only considered influential because of her looks, using the terms “theology by cupsize” and “theological windowdressing.”[4]

But many of those in disbelief were outside of academic theology and biblical studies. I think part of the disconnect stems from the assumption that universities are generally progressive spaces—as we can see from the last two comments, this is not necessarily the case. But because of their close connection to religious communities across the theological and social spectrum, the fields of theology and biblical studies attract students and scholars from equally varied backgrounds. This is for me part of the beauty of these fields, as we get to learn from a wide breadth of traditions and experiences, and I am thankful for initiatives like Logia which seek to amplify the diverse voices which are not heard enough. However, just as much as we benefit from this diversity, we are also met with challenges from the traditions and communities who have yet to embrace the equal academic gifting of women.

As many of my female colleagues can attest to, sexism in academia is not limited to religious or conservative spaces. In an adjacent sub-discipline to mine in Cambridge, none of my female colleagues’ spouses or partners were invited to an annual department dinner while all the male colleagues were granted a plus one.

But equally, support can come from any corner. At my first-ever Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, Charlie Trimm, who taught me as an undergrad, arranged ahead of time to introduce me to a middle-career female scholar. “I know the field can be difficult for women, so I want to make sure you have female colleagues you can talk to who will support you.” He himself has supported me in countless ways but recognised that there may be experiences or issues I may not feel comfortable talking to him or other male colleagues about.

For similar reasons, my supervisor, Nathan MacDonald, ensured that my faculty advisor was a woman.[5] He also makes a pro-active effort to rectify the usual gender imbalance in the field by seeking out promising female undergraduates and encouraging them to pursue further study. In part thanks to these efforts, up until recently, the majority of graduate students in my own sub-discipline within the Cambridge Divinity Faculty were women.

The responses on my recent Twitter post reminded me we need to keep talking about experiences of sexism so that others know it is not an issue of the past. Zero formal complaints of sexist or misogynistic conduct were made to the SBL last year. “We solved sexism!” I heard a male colleague pronounce in jest. Even though I knew he was joking, my stomach clenched thinking this was the only narrative some would receive looking only at hard data.

But we also need to share our experiences, both positive and negative, so that other women in the field know they are not alone and that these issues can be overcome; so that they can know who to trust and where to find support.

I love Logia’s motto “You can be what you can see.” So here is part of the visibility I want to contribute: your complaints are never too small. Just because others may have faced “more” sexism than you does not invalidate your own experience or need for support.

Women in the field have come a long way, our predecessors fought many good fights. But there is still work to be done. I look forward to the day when the testimonies of sexism truly are “unbelievable.”

[1] This man knew nothing of my personal life, my relationship status, or my attitudes towards having a family—let alone my own desires or aspirations for my future—but it was clear from this and past conversations that he felt the main calling and priority of women should be having a family and being a stay-at-home mother if possible.

[2] These comments are taken from my Twitter post here: .

[3] Triumphantly, the rest of the tweet is “So I went to law school instead”!

[4] You can find a summary of the ordeal here:

[5] In the UK, a faculty advisor is a liaison to the department, complementary to the supervisor, who helps oversee the work of a PhD student, similar to a PhD committee member elsewhere in the world.

Sophia R.C. Johnson is finishing her PhD at the Faculty of Divinity, the University of Cambridge, where she is also an associated lecturer. She is currently a DAAD visiting scholar at the University of Göttingen and serves on the Society of Biblical Literature’s Committee for the Status of Women in the Profession. Sophia specialises in diachronic approaches to the conceptual history of the Hebrew Bible, especially the concept of covenant, and the reception history of Old Testament imaginaries in European political thought. She has recently published in the Journal of Biblical Literature and co-edited a special issue of the Journal of the Bible and Its Reception.

Choosing Resilience by Hannah Fytche

The deep purple oil pastel was soft and warm in my hand. It crumbled as I pressed it across the paper, upon which were words written in evaluation of me. I had chosen purple because those particular words bruised me: they were critical, and some of them were untrue. On other parts of the paper, there were words coloured over with gold: these were encouraging, affirming, and true. The purple and gold ran alongside each other. Bruises and affirmations.  

Once the whole paper was coloured over, I folded it into a flower. I placed it onto a river I’d painted on some cardboard. Alongside the river I had written: ‘See, I am making all things new’.

I did this as a way of integrating and processing those words and my experience of them, and working out how to respond to them. The context and particular content of the words don’t matter for our purposes here – rather, what I am hoping to communicate is the process of my response to them. It was an act of hope and prayer: an act of resilience.

Resilience is the ability to persist and grow through change or adversity. Resilience is what allows us to keep going and stay true to who we are, even when times are tough. Resilience is something we’ve all needed and grown in through these last few years of pandemic, recovery, and other global changes and crises. It’s something that we need for all sorts of personal circumstances, and something that we need in the context of our academic work.


I am a PhD student at Clare College, Cambridge, researching Paul’s use of the ‘body of Christ’ metaphor in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. I’m questioning how this metaphor forms identity: the identity of individual bodies in Christ, in all their diversity; and the identity of the unified corporate ‘body’ in Christ. It’s fascinating, relevant to present-day conversations, and I really am enjoying my time inhabiting this question.

Yet, as I’m sure will be familiar to many researchers, this work takes resilience.

It takes resilience in the day-to-day, at-the-desk work. Even when enjoying research there are those unsettling moments when the concepts aren’t quite coming together, or when you’re staring at a blank page for the third day running, or when you come across that article or chapter which says what you want to say (but better).

The moments that really get under my skin are the ones in which I have started writing something new – but progress is stilted and slow, because I can’t quite hear my own voice in the words that I’m stringing together. It takes resilience to keep returning to the page, and to keep stepping up to the task of reading texts and working out how to say what I want to say about them.

It takes resilience to stay committed to seeking out and trusting my own voice in this process. Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier if my voice were different – if it were more like the voices of scholars that I admire, or if it had more in common with my colleagues (I am currently the one woman PhD candidate in New Testament in my University). Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier if I were less concerned with how my research speaks to wider pastoral and ecclesiological settings, and focused instead on something that was firmly within the academic sphere.

When I encounter these moments, I always circle back through them to the conclusion that if my voice were different than it is, I wouldn’t be me – and the writing I produced wouldn’t be mine, and it wouldn’t be committed to the values that I hold. I remind myself that the question I’m asking through my research is deeply invested in seeking ways to value diverse voices, and to see how we find corporate unity through diversity. I remind myself that just as I value the voices of others, so my voice has value too.

When I remind myself of this, often by taking a long “thinking/praying walk” into the fields near where I live, I find the motivation to return to the blank page and keep listening. I keep listening for how the concepts are actually coming together; how the blank page offers itself to my imagination; how the article or chapter I found doesn’t actually say it better – it says it differently. My own voice has another perspective to offer.

All of this adds up to new resilience: a refreshed resolution to keep going and growing even when I question my voice and my work. It takes the questions, and the critiques implicit in them, and it folds them into something new. I am enabled to grow through the challenge, and to recommit to the research – both day-by-day at my desk, and as I engage with wider academic communities.


I wonder if any of this resonates. If so, I want to offer an invitation – a kind of guided imagination, based on my story at the start, to give you space to notice the moments in your research life through which you’d like to grow resilient. Give yourself five minutes to imagine with me.

Picture your own piece of paper, like the one in my story. As you imagine that piece of paper, you could fill it in with anything: descriptions of experiences in academic life; words people have written or said of or to you, both affirming and critical; words you have thought, as you’ve rewritten that chapter for the fifth time; stories you have encountered of (in)equality or (in)justice or [fill in the blank] in the academy. You can fill that piece of paper with anything that you need to process and work out. Give yourself space to recognise these things, and to feel how you feel about them.

As you imagine that paper, I wonder what colours you choose to respond to it. Are there colours of encouragement or affirmation? Colours of hopefulness and joy? Colours that represent how you feel when critiqued? Colours of anger, fear, compassion?

Once you’ve coloured your paper, imagine folding it into something new. I folded mine into a flower and placed it on a river. For me this is a helpful metaphor: like a seed buried and breaking open to put down roots, I could take the words written on my paper, and the experiences connected to them, and break them open to new life.

Hannah is a 2nd-year PhD candidate (in New Testament/Paul) at Clare College, Cambridge, where she is also the Decani Scholar (which means she practically supports the life and ministry of Clare College Chapel). When she’s not at Chapel or in the library, you can find her on a long walk through the Cambridgeshire fields, crafting or cooking great food with friends, or planning her next travel adventure! 

A Journey Toward Becoming Myself by Brittany Kim

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).

“A Journey through the Wilderness: A Story of Academic Trauma” by Madison N. Pierce

In the summer we completed our fourth major move in five years—and in those five years I have already experienced a career’s worth of academic trauma.

But is this the best place to begin? It’s not like I didn’t have bumps in the road prior to employment, especially in light of my conservative evangelical church background. In fact, the response that I received when I first articulated a call to teach in the church was: “You can marry a teacher, but you can’t be one.”

In the years that followed, I dreamed about what it would look like for me to be a theologian. Should I publish under a pseudonym? Could I teach theology through music?

As the years passed, I found myself asking God: “Why did you make me like this?” I saw my female body as a burden, an obstacle.

And in the contexts that I was in, my leaders supposedly were doing the “Lord’s work” in tamping down my fanciful dreams of doing ministry and having a career in theology.

By 2016, when I entered the job market, I was used to questions, and I was used to doubt. I also was used to comments about how “easy” it would be for me as a woman in the academy. I heard this refrain as I entered my job interviews that year at the Annual Meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature. I thought: I guess, if I don’t get hired, then I’m remarkably incompetent.  My female body was a token—sometimes of progress but more often of threat. When the winds of change blow, some are knocked out of the way.

So when I landed a tenure-track position out of my PhD, I knew—or at least I assumed—that I could no longer complain. Friends were staring into an unknown future, and I was waltzing into something stable. I had some concerns about things I experienced in the interview process, but I was lucky; I had a job.

A year later, back at SBL, I walked through the book exhibit, and I met faces from my past. “Wow. Congratulations. You’ve made it.” “You’re so lucky.” “We’re going to ride your coattails.”

I smiled. I nodded. I laughed. (That’s what women are supposed to do when they’re uncomfortable.)

Inside, however, I was replaying my most recent weeks. I thought back to the conversation where I was told that my job interview had been constructed in a way to ensure that I was never one-on-one with any men—“for my benefit.” I thought back to the lunch I’d had where I heard one of my supervisors sexually harass a student in a conversation that I was participating in.

According to my peers, I was lucky.

But a few days later, still in Boston for SBL, I received an email. The man that I had just reported for sexual harassment wanted to observe my class. He needed to come in the next week. I sat on the edge of a crowded room in the convention center in Boston—overwhelmed by the conversations that blended together into a chaotic form of white noise.

When I gained the strength, I protested his visit. I spoke up that time and the next time that he caused me harm. Simultaneously, I began to look for a way out, a new job.

That same semester, though, I began to see how my own “femaleness” could somehow be beneficial to others. One day I felt this acutely when a female student training for pastoral ministry said to me, “I haven’t taken your classes, but it’s so good for me to see you.” My female body represented her potential.

In late January, I learned that I was pregnant. I was overjoyed. But sadly, in that season, it felt that my potential happiness was a mirage. My husband and I would attend doctor’s appointments together, and we would plan and rejoice in our baby’s health (and my own). But I would step back on campus and feel an immediate sense of dread. As I turned every corner, I prayed that I would not meet my supervisor (or several others) in the halls.

My health began to deteriorate in the wake of anxiety and depression, resulting from various traumatic experiences that year. Knowing that I needed to care for our baby, I tried to get help on campus again. I trusted someone with a note from my doctor that revealed that I was pregnant. (This was someone whose job it was to receive notes of this kind.)

They went directly to my supervisor. They gave him my doctor’s note. He copied it. He shared it. He complained about my new (and still very fragile) pregnancy to anyone who would listen. Now my female body was a source of contention. I was a stereotype, a woman who caused problems because of her ticking biological clock.

About a week after I found out my supervisor knew, my husband and I decided that, even if I was unable to procure another job, I would not return in the fall. After my teaching finished, I left town. I waddled back into my mother’s house—pregnant with no firm prospects.

As I left town, I began to think about my colleagues who remained. They were traumatized too, they said. How could they stay? I couldn’t stay. I felt isolated, and I began to wonder if the messages I had heard from my supervisor’s supporters were true. Was I too sensitive? Was this just a personality conflict? Did I have a problem with authority?

These were the questions that I carried into my next job.

These were the questions that I asked myself when I complained about a student stalking me and received no practical support. (To be fair, I did receive a hearty laugh about how he was “crazy” when I said I was terrified to come on campus.) I asked myself these questions again when beloved students who were harassed and exploited filed a complaint and were continually re-traumatized in the course of the investigation. I asked again when I was cut off in the middle of my sentence in a faculty meeting and told that the experiences of women on campus were “irrelevant” to discussions of faculty hiring and “fit.” I asked each time a leader spiritually abused us in meetings with faculty and staff. I asked again and again. Over time, the questions merged into just one: “Madison, what is wrong with you?”

Thankfully, I knew that, as flawed as I may be, my experience was still horrible. I might be sensitive, and I might be “difficult,” but I was in a wicked system where predators thrived. So yet again, I left.

This version of my story is sad and infuriating. But something that I have learned is stories (and people) are more than just one thing. One of my favorite sets of narratives in biblical literature is the story of God’s people in the wilderness. These stories show so many examples of God’s people rebelling, seeking their own gain, but simultaneously, and I think more importantly, these stories show God’s gracious provision. My story, similarly, has many villains, but I could tell another version that highlights only the incredible gifts and people that God has provided in my life. Both would be true, and both make me the woman that I am.

Through these stories and countless others that perhaps I will tell another day, the one thing that presses me onward is the truth that God is just and merciful. In the last five years, I have fought hard—for myself and for others. I have made formal complaints. I have pushed for policy changes. I have spoken up in faculty meetings at times when tenured (i.e., secure) faculty were silent.

But I did not achieve the results that I wanted. Perhaps you would say that I failed.

Some days it feels like the person punished the most for my advocacy is me because the people who caused my students, my colleagues and me harm remain in their positions of power, and for my own health and wellbeing, I chose to leave and to find a place that is healthy where I can find a sense of belonging as myself.

So what does my story mean for you if, God forbid, you find yourself in an unhealthy or abusive environment? Is my story a cautionary tale for survivors and advocates to stay silent?

What I have learned through all of this is not that the fight is not worth it; I think it is our call. But it is costly, and we must pursue justice in ways that allow us to preserve our own wellbeing. This work is slow, and it has many layers. For me, some days the work looks like prayer, other days it looks like researching Title IX, and others like confronting someone directly. But knowing what we can do in the strength that we have today is important.

What has changed for me in the last five years is the outcome that I expect. I still fight with the hope that even the most wicked of systems can be changed completely—because I do believe in extraordinary things—but I fight with the knowledge that I likely won’t see the change that I desire.

And this is where the character of God comes back in for me. Even though I feel that I cannot trust (most) people to make the right decisions when they are called to stand up to power, I trust someday I will see true justice and restoration.

Madison N. Pierce (PhD, Durham University) is associate professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary. She has written Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews (CUP, 2020) and has co-edited Gospel Reading and Reception in Early Christian Literature (CUP, 2022) and Muted Voices of the New Testament (2017).

Knowing and Loving Your People and Your Place By Christa L. McKirland

After completing my doctorate, I searched for over a year for a teaching role in the United States—however, finding a place where I could teach Christian systematic theology, as a woman and a mutualist, was no small feat.[1] Schools that might hire me because of doctrinal alignment often had statements of belief that ruled out my teaching either because of being a woman or because I wouldn’t hold to a hierarchical understanding of men’s and women’s roles. Schools that might hire me despite, or even because of, being a woman, were often not a good fit doctrinally. I’ve always had a love for the local church and wanted to do theology from a confessional positionality and to equip students within Christian theology. Add to that the general lack of jobs in higher education, especially within the humanities, and even more so in theology, and my search necessarily became global.

While these reasons were more negative for my enlarged search, there was also a positive pull to a specific school in Aotearoa New Zealand. There, I found a small Baptist college that was (and is) committed to supporting women in theology and in the local church. We discerned strong alignment in my interview process, and I remember sensing that there was just as much that I could learn from this community as I could possibly hope to teach. So, at the beginning of 2020, my family and I moved to Auckland so that I could teach systematic theology at Carey Baptist College.

Since that time, I have been deeply impacted by my time here. I have been exposed to different value systems and worldviews. From my Māori (the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand) friends, students, and colleagues, I have learned the importance of knowing and acknowledging the people from whom you come.[2] For instance, while I was used to weighing out a publication output based on what it would add to my CV, my friends here think of it in terms of how it will honour their community and their grandparents, and create a better world for their grandchildren (potential though they may be). I didn’t realise how much these values had affected me until my recent trip back to the United States for conferences in Denver and to see my family in Georgia.

Much to the dismay of many of my academic friends whom I met up with at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting, the first conference I attended was the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meeting. I believe the dismay is for a few reasons. First, the highly conservative nature of some members of this community—what I would call “culturally evangelical”—tend to subordinate women to men, are blind to systemic injustice, are uncritical (and unaware) of power imbalances, and are funding the “Conservative Resurgence” as a cultural war against liberal agendas.[3] To my friends and concerned colleagues, this is unsalvageable. However, my solace is that the society is not predominantly evangelical in a cultural sense. Instead, they are evangelical in the sense of foregrounding (making primary) the good news, “gospel”—the euangelion—which is where “evangelical” comes from. Such a form of evangelicalism is definitely shaped by culture and wants to be a positive influence within culture, but it is not seeking to save culture.

So, while ETS has “Evangelical” in the very title, this is a term appropriated differently by individual members. However, my friends might still balk, especially when they see that members must affirm inerrancy (and the Trinity, but that causes less of a reaction). Yet, even on inerrancy I’ve found the term understood more and less rigidly among ETS’s members. Personally, I’ve found Mike Bird’s article on inerrancy to be quite helpful given the culture wars around this concept, and to help Americans zoom out from our parochial mindsets. Looking at a brief history of this concept, he notes “while many American evangelicals preached the inerrancy of the text, what they often practiced was the inerrancy of their interpretation and the hegemony of their tribe in certain denominations.” Again, within ETS there are those who wield inerrancy as a weapon (the Bible says it so we can take a “plain reading” of the text without an interpretation) and those who believe that God has not erred in communicating what God wants to communicate through Scripture (our methods and communities of interpretation are important, while not undermining inspiration). So, my conversations with AAR friends after the ETS conference were ongoing defences of this society—that there is still a lot of good happening in this space: scholarship that foregrounds the gospel as the good news that it is.

I was privileged to hear this scholarship on: a feminist reading of Luke’s parable of the persistent widow (along with the recognition that there are feminisms and that these are often misunderstood in Christian theology); an exposition of Mary’s song as prophetic discourse and its relation to women’s full inclusion in ministry roles; a response paper enlisting Willie Jennings and Edward Said to critique the empire building of American Evangelicals; and a dogmatic ecclesiology that understands sacraments as important ordinances but in a way that de-centres church polities which exclude women from administering them, to name but a few. As a society, ETS has influence far beyond its annual meeting, and these papers gave me hope for ways that evangelicalism, especially in America, might again be a movement about the good news of Jesus Christ.

At the same time, this is not a blind hope, especially for women and ethnic minorities who are still in this society. This remains a very challenging space to exist in, let alone, to be active in.

To illustrate, the first session of papers that I went to (the second paper up was a friend of mine, whom I wanted to support) was given by a former professor of mine. I had run into him the night before at registration and re-introduced myself in case he’d forgotten my name. He commented, “you’ve come a long way to be here.” I was initially struck by this since, at his first glance around the room, he didn’t seem to recognise me, but then his comment indicated that he remembered me and knew that I was not geographically nearby. While not wanting to read too much into his comment, my sense that it was odd that he did know who I was and where I had come from made more sense as I sat in that first session. Most of his essay’s content was critiquing a chapter I had recently written in a book defending men and women’s equality.[4] Unfortunately, he did not characterise my argument accurately or charitably and explained my theology of the body as the opposite of what I argued.

Fortunately, after each paper there is time for interaction, and I couldn’t raise my hand fast enough. He called on me, and as I stood, he explained to the standing-room only audience that “this is the Christa from the paper.” I then had a chance to find our points of commonality (and there was one!) and briefly our points of difference—primarily how he had misunderstood and mischaracterised my chapter. While he didn’t address my concerns I raised or the objections in the chapter itself, I had a chance to clarify for the audience where our disagreements actually lay. This is what academic discussion is meant to do: to provide a place for us to have read and listened carefully and charitably to others so we can engage each other’s strongest arguments and make them better or find them too lacking and change our own views. Scholarly communities are thus critical for our thinking to grow. However, if we provide a strawman (or strawwoman, in my case) of a person’s argument, this undermines the effectiveness of the scholarly community. Further, when essays are used to undermine scholar’s credibility by misrepresenting their arguments, this is a misuse of power and needs to be held to account.

I don’t think this former professor wanted me in that room. If he had, he could have easily invited me to the paper the night before when he saw me. He could have emailed me the paper before the conference to make sure he’d understood me correctly. As my brother in Christ, he could have treated me with the dignity of his sister.

But what surprised me was my takeaway from that experience.

I realised: These are my people.

I’m the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist Reverend. The daughter of a Southern Baptist Minister. I grew up Southern Baptist, and those roots have given me a love for the Bible and Jesus, even if this is also enmeshed with cultural evangelicalism. While I have distanced myself from Southern Baptists, I am still Baptist through and through. And one of the best ways I can serve my people is to show up, think well, work hard, speak out, and also write about these experiences.

I do wish this had been my only negative experience. Unfortunately, there was also a business meeting wherein an amendment to a bylaw regarding the roles of members of the executive committee of ETS was introduced that would change all instances of “he” to “he or she,” and I (along with others) had to argue for this amendment to pass. I was called “overly sensitive” and a “product of wokeness” for arguing in favour of this amendment. Fortunately, only 11 people voted against the amendment out of a business meeting of roughly 120 voting members. Such a vote revealed not only the vocal nature of the group that opposed the amendment, but also their minority status in the broader society (and how few voting members attend these meetings!). Separately, women recounted being asked whose wife they were, not being looked in the eyes, or being called “girls.” In terms of ideology, one presenter compared egalitarianism to ebola and the way it is killing the church. Such experiences affect women differently from men, which is why we need more men to be advocates in these spaces.  

However, I am in a position of privilege that affords me the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical stamina to be in these places. I have an institution that supports me wholeheartedly. I have a partner who believes in me and will do whatever it takes for me to be in these spaces. I do not depend on the men in this society for my career’s success.

This is the place I am meant to be.

So, my reasons for staying at ETS are that there is hope that more scholarship that foregrounds Jesus will be researched and published, but also, in order to be in the room when arguments, positions, and people are being belittled. Of course, I do long for ETS to be a safe place for women, ethnic minorities, and frankly, anyone who wants to foreground Jesus in their scholarship. In my opinion, for now, choosing to be in this place, especially for these more vulnerable communities, is a matter of conviction and calling. Conversely, for those ETS members or affiliates who are not in these vulnerable communities, I do believe there is a responsibility to be in this place to advocate for change and ensure that ETS is the kind of scholarly community that causes growth instead of harm.

For my part, I am grateful to have a renewed understanding and sense of love for and calling to this people and this place, and I look forward with tempered hope for what is to come.

[1] I prefer the term mutualist to egalitarian given the baggage associated with egalitarianism and its focus on men and women having equal authority. Since I don’t believe that fellow Christians are meant to have authority over one another, I use mutualism to discuss the mutual submission of men and women to one another as this is the emphasis I see in the New Testament model of the church as siblings. Also, I recognise that being on the job market for only a year is remarkable.

[2] This would also include your land. As this is a journey I am very much still on, I don’t know enough about my ancestors to know all the lands from which we came, but enough to know that most of my ancestors were not indigenous to Turtle Island (North America).

[3] For a fascinating ethnographic sociology of the “Conservative Resurgence,” I would recommend Lisa Weaver Swartz, Stained Glass Ceilings: How Evangelicals do Gender and Practice Power, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2022.

[4]Imago Dei and Divine Presence: A Critique of Gender Essentialism,” in Discovering Biblical Equality. Revised and Expanded edition, edited by Ronald Pierce, Cynthia Westfall, and Christa L. McKirland. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Christa L. McKirland is a lecturer in Systematic Theology at Carey Baptist College in Aotearoa New Zealand. She is also the Executive Director of Logia International. She loves working on theological anthropology and learning about this sub-discipline from her two children: Raya, six and Johnny, four.