Category: 2022

Living in the In-Between

By Dr. Kathy Maxwell

Increasingly, I find that students think of their time at a university as a time “between”. They are between adolescence and adulthood.  Between secondary education and career. Between living with parents and starting their own families. They have just enough responsibility, moving into a dormitory, but not quite the responsibility of paying a mortgage. 

Perhaps one of the most significant elements of this time between is the formation of students’ spirituality. I teach at a Protestant liberal arts university in the United States, in West Palm Beach, Florida. Many of our students come from Christian backgrounds, though their commitment to faith traditions vary. They find themselves “between” the faith of their parents and a carefully considered faith of their own.

As an instructor of biblical studies courses, I often find that even students who have been in worshipping communities their whole lives read the Bible for the first time in college. For many, this is a life-giving experience. Students find points of unexpected connection and direction from scripture that they thought they knew inside and out.  Other times, though, students struggle with reconciling past perceptions of “what the Bible says” with a close reading of the text. Suddenly, they learn that there are two creation accounts sitting side by side in Genesis 1 and 2, that David’s character was far from untarnished, and that the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11) is not included in the most ancient manuscripts of John’s gospel. In addition to new factual information about the Bible, students also begin to learn the art of interpretation and the challenge – and gift – of critical reading of scripture. For many, the university classroom is the first time they are invited to think critically about the Bible and matters of faith, and this can be a daunting task.

I recently came across the emerging field of liminal theology, which, as described by Jonathan Best,  “explores God’s work within the transitional and in-between” (https://liminaltheology.org/whatisliminaltheology/). This theological project calls to mind literary insights of Umberto Eco, Wolfgang Iser, and others, who propose that literature’s meaning is found not in the text and not in the reader, but in the gap – the “in-between-ness” – between the two. In settings that prioritize the objective and the “right” answers, this liminal space is a problem to be solved. We do not want to be in-between; we want to arrive at one place, or another.

Yet being students of ancient texts invites us into many in-between spaces. While an undergraduate student, I learned in a missiology class the term “third culture”, which refers to children of missionaries.  The child’s family originated in one culture, but the child grew up in a different culture. When returning to her family’s culture of origin, the child finds that she is not fully a member of one culture or the other – her culture is at the intersection of the two. We find ourselves at a similar intersection when experiencing the biblical text. As 21st century readers of ancient text, we are in-between time, culture, and language. We necessarily read from our own position, simultaneously valuing the ancient horizon of the text. Our experience of Christian scripture is in-between in terms of media: compositions originally experienced orally come to us most often in the form of printed texts. Paul Ricoeur’s work delves into the process of moving from speech to text, but what happens when we move in the other direction?  When we take printed (and translated) forms of ancient oral compositions and put the words back into our mouths and ears and bodies, we have entered another space of transition. The questions suddenly multiply. What tone did Jesus use when addressing the Syrophonecian Woman (Mark 7:27)? What gesture did Paul use when wishing that the false teachers in Galatia would be “cut off” (Gal. 5:12)? How do we tell the story of the whispers that follow Naomi when she returns to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19)?

Far from being problems to overcome, each of these liminal experiences is a challenge – and an opportunity. 

But standing in this intersection can be disorienting, especially if we assumed that everything was situated along one straight, well-defined path. Modern sensibilities in western society have taught us to prefer such a path and to move from point A to point B efficiently. Yet the application of critical thinking to matters of faith disrupts linear, measurable movement. Questions often evolve into doubt, even rejection of faith. Those who have nurtured students’ faith are understandably alarmed by this development, and the natural reaction is to limit these questions.

Last year, I encountered a student in the midst of struggling with her faith and in particular, with Christian scripture. She was angry and felt betrayed by those who had assured her of “what the Bible says”. As a senior in college, she was for the first time reading the Bible for herself, and much of what she read did not seem to match what she had been taught. After reading the Bible carefully, she decided that she could no longer identify with the Christian faith.

We connected rather randomly when I was a guest lecture for a colleague’s class, and I had the privilege of meeting weekly with this student during her last semester. We didn’t really have a goal, but each week, the student came with lists of questions. We talked about reading Scripture in context. The polyphonic voice of Scripture. How to ask constructive questions about the Bible and faith. After a couple of months, the student found a church home and a community that supported her exploration. By the time she graduated, she had recommitted herself to faith – though she still wrestles with it, and she is committed to a close reading of Scripture – even when it is hard. 

When students begin to question their faith, those who care for them worry. But questions are a necessary part of the process of growing into faith, and with support, one emerges with a stronger and more reasoned faith – one that she can call her own. As a faculty member, students have taught me the value of the in-between-ness. Through honest questions and challenging perspectives, I have learned to honor the reality that there are often more questions than answers. 

Rainer Marie Rilke challenges us in Letters to a Young Poet, “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Dr. Kathy Maxwell is Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs in the School of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University, where she teaches New Testament.  Her current research focuses on rhetorical and performance criticism of the Bible.  She is fascinated by the transformative power of engaged storytelling and is a certified storyteller through the Network of Biblical Storytellers, Int.

Logia Profile: Melissa J. Barciela Mandala

By: Melissa J. Barciela Mandala

My road to academics began in my teenage years. Though I would often say, “I want to be a veterinarian” and “I want to be a nurse,” I eventually returned to a fundamental sense that biblical studies is what I love and had always loved as a young person. I completed my undergraduate degree at Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBAU) in Biblical and Theological Studies to enter full-time ministerial work. Toward the end of my undergraduate degree, I had the opportunity to do a study abroad program at the University of Oxford. Through my tutorial experiences and interaction with scholars in New Testament studies, I quickly realized that I enjoyed rigorous academic study much more than one might say is “normal.” I took that passion as indicating that I ought to shift onto a more academic path while still maintaining my involvement in church ministry. I went on to complete a Master of Divinity at PBAU, but I was determined that I would one day return to the U.K. for doctoral studies. Alas, in 2020, my husband Ryan and I moved to Dundee, Scotland, and I completed a Master of Letters in Biblical Languages and Literature at the University of St Andrews. I am now a first-year Ph.D. student at St Andrews.

My research focus is on New Testament/Pauline studies, and my doctoral thesis is a comparative study of the conceptions of the suffering body and its relation to virtue formation in the writings of Paul and Seneca. I am interested in the ways the body is depicted in pain, particularly in Paul’s context, which includes the writings of Second Temple Judaism and the broader Greco-Roman context, and how this informs the way we understand Paul’s body language as it is applied to suffering and participation in Christ’s sufferings. I am also intrigued by what happens when we take this particular first-century conception of the body and place it in dialogue with one of Paul’s contemporaries, the Stoic philosopher, Seneca. 

This research interest arose from both academic intrigue and personal interest. Multiple family members of mine have faced bodily suffering and chronic pain in ways that made me especially aware of how body metaphors are used in the biblical text. Additionally, as I sought to understand the bodily pain experienced among those in my family and my own body, I recognized the need for theological conversation around chronic bodily ailment within the local church. Though I am not working on a theology of pain, my project is a New Testament contribution to these important questions. I am grateful that the St Mary’s College at the University of St Andrews offered me a space to pursue these interests and develop as a young scholar in the field. 

Additionally, I currently serve as co-director of a global organization called Logia. Based in St Andrews, our main purpose is to highlight and develop women’s excellence within the discipline of Divinity. Our core belief is that “You can be what you can see.” This expresses the idea that women in academics need to see examples of women’s excellence and success in their field of study in order to envision their own place at the table. An important part of my own journey as a young academic is that I could see what I wanted to be. Though I had many men serve as influential mentors and guides, there were also several women who modeled women’s excellence in biblical studies through skilled teaching and significant scholarship. I recognize that I was very fortunate to have women in my field as mentors when my own female mentors and many of my female peers did not have the same opportunities. I was given a vision for academic life as a woman, a future mother, and a spouse; I am indebted to their legacy and investment. In my role at Logia, I hope to provide a means by which women here at St Andrews can be what they see.

For these reasons, and in light of my own story, I am more convinced than ever that women’s excellence in biblical and theological studies must be highlighted and developed. There is yet a long distance to travel when it comes to women’s voices being welcomed and academic spaces becoming accessible to women at all levels. Within my own academic journey, I am committed to pursuing excellence in teaching and research so that I might enable the next generation of women in my field to envision their own place at the table. 

Melissa J. Barciela Mandala is a Ph.D. student in New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews. She serves as co-director of Logia St Andrews.

Photo by Meg MacDonald on Unsplash

April Logia Profile: God is For Women

By: Lynn H. Cohick

There is a reason I like doing podcasts rather than writing blogs – I often don’t know what I think until I hear myself say it! (Paraphrased from a quote by Flannery O’Connor).

But the discipline of writing down ideas and shaping arguments is a necessary one for me, as it helps me process the world around me. I slow down enough to type, and I have to think sequentially, sentence by sentence, rather than the pinball approach that sometimes happens as ideas spill out of my mouth.

The discipline of writing also forces me to engage with wider conversations, and move out of my own head and comfort zone to be a part of a community discussion. It gives me space for reflection, weighing arguments, and observing trends.

Last year with much help from my terrific colleagues at Northern Seminary, I started a podcast, the Alabaster Jar, dedicated to promoting women’s voices in the church and academy. We launched the Center for Women in Leadership, with the hope of creating a community for women and men to thrive in their calling (https://www.cwlnorthern.com/). We held a conference in October 2021 called “Tov for Women,” based on the book, A Church Called Tov, co-authored by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer. We have plans for a second “Tov for Women” conference in October 2022! We also started an MA in Women and Theology, and I taught two courses: Women in the Early Church and Women in the New Testament, to both men and women. These three things – the classes, the conference, and the podcast – have brought me into a thriving community of women pastors, educators, ministry leaders, and authors. I’ve been inspired by their transparency, resiliency, passion, and conviction that sets out to make a positive difference.

I have also been struck by several encouraging trends.

First, women are hungry for change. They are non-apologetic about the insufficiency of the status quo and ready to move out of toxic spaces and into life-giving places. This takes tremendous courage, and a community of support – and women are showing up for each other and encouraging each other. Women are challenging their denominations to do better by them, and if the request goes unheeded, they are more than prepared to head out the door. Women are well aware of the cost in terms of broken relationships and rejection, but they move ahead. As one of my students, Caryn Rivadeneira, affirmed, they believe that God is for them.

Second, women are looking at Scripture closely, and are calling out bad exegesis. Bad exegesis uses one or two passages (you know which ones I’m talking about!) as bludgeons to silence women and gaslight them. Women are tired of the worn-out tropes that label and marginalize women of the Bible: prostitute, sexually suspicious, uppity. Even Mary the mother of Jesus, does not escape; poor exegesis over-emphasizes the possible moment of social shame as Mary could be labeled an unwed, teenage mom. Behind this argument lurks a veiled threat to all women that social ruin is a mere accusation away, while men like King David can overcome their stain of adultery and murder to be role models. David’s actions, clearly condemned by the prophet Nathan, reveal a man with absolute power who used it against Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:1–12:13). Today David’s deed would be classified as rape. Women (and some men) are challenging the exegetical obsession with sexuality around women in the Bible. They rightly protest assumptions about Bathsheba’s flirtation (she was performing a menstrual purity rite, not splashing about in a jacuzzi). They allow Mary to be the prophet she is, letting her Magnificat ring out. (Don’t get me started with the Samaritan woman!) Exegetes are now seeing that God is for women.

Third, women are correcting sexist history and retelling the church’s story with clear-eyed attention to the sexism and misogyny (I don’t use that term lightly) that has infected church leadership across time and denominations. These new histories expose the way women’s leadership has been ignored or downplayed. They highlight the modern cultural embeddedness of claims that relegate women to the margins in church leadership structures. These challenges to the hierarchical status quo demand that the church behaves according to the biblical truth that God is for women.

Fourth, women are speaking up, and taking responsibility for their voice in their community. For example, white women are leaning in to hear from women of color, to stand together in common struggles, and to support each other in struggles that are unique to a given community. This is not merely strength in numbers, this is strength in stories that demonstrate the power to change their spaces of influence. Women are for other women because God is for women.

I’m going to add a fifth point – women are now able to talk about failures, about fighting against perfectionism, about being OK with being OK. Women face overwhelming pressure to be extraordinary so they can have a seat at the table. This unfair and unsustainable burden is recognized for what it is and is challenged. This is great news: it means we are living into our authentic selves. It means we can challenge social (and ecclesiastical) stereotypes that drain away our energy, minimize our competency, and mute our unique voices. It means we are confident that God is for women.

I want to keep the momentum going. Women must be vigilant against sexism in the workplace, the home, and the church. Those with privilege, such as myself, must work for change for all women. The efforts are worth it because God is for women.

Lynn H. Cohick (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania) is Provost/Dean of Academic Affairs at Northern Seminary. Prior to coming to Northern Seminary, Lynn served as Provost of Denver Seminary. She was Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and taught at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology in Nairobi, Kenya. She serves as President of the Institute for Biblical Research. Her books include The Letter to the Ephesians in NICNT (2020); Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through the Fifth Centuries (co-authored with Amy Brown Hughes (2017); Philippians in the Story of God Commentary (2013); Ephesians in New Covenant Commentary (2010); Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (2009).

Photo by Kevin Mueller on Unsplash

Logia Post: Taking Church Online, and Leaving it There?

By: Dr. Lynne Taylor

I have a post-it note on my computer monitor with the word “flourishing” on it. It’s a reminder of why I do what I do, and it helps provide a grounding or focus when I’m feeling overwhelmed by workload or possibilities. My focus on human flourishing has always been central to my work and research interests, although how that has been expressed has changed over time. As a Christian, I see the potential that churches have to help support the holistic wellbeing (flourishing) of their congregations, as well as the wider communities that surround them. Therefore, most of the work and study I have engaged in over the years has been motivated by a desire to help Christians and churches live into that potential.

I’ve worked and volunteered in various pastoral ministry roles, seeking to help people flourish in their everyday lives. I’ve engaged in a range of research tasks including exploring how churches can support the wellbeing of older adults, providing community demographics to help hundreds of churches better understand their local contexts, and learning from the experiences of churches that were given funding to engage in new and innovative ministries. It’s been varied, which I love, but has largely been held by that desire to see people flourish.

I had always wanted to pursue further study in practical theology and seized the opportunity to do so when we lived for six years in Adelaide, South Australia. In 2017, I completed my PhD exploring why previously unchurched Australians become Christians today and was awarded the Flinders University of South Australia Vice Chancellor’s Prize for Doctoral Excellence. I began as Jack Somerville Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at the University of Otago (in my home country of Aotearoa New Zealand) in 2018.

The next two years were challenging and fulfilling, as I balanced this part-time academic role alongside my pastoral ministry role co-leading a student congregation. In 2020, I was able to increase my hours at the university and while it was a sad farewell to the ministry role and all it entailed, I have appreciated being able to narrow my focus to teaching, research, and writing. I teach courses in pastoral and practical theology, including on pastoral care, contemporary faith formation, and mission. I continue to publish articles based on the work I did for my PhD, as well as researching and writing in new areas. This new research was both a requirement of my academic confirmation and an exciting opportunity to explore topics of interest. I now supervise several postgraduate students (from honours to PhD level) and I enjoy supporting their research and watching them learn and develop as academics.

When Covid-19 hit I was beginning to plan my first research leave. I shelved dreams of overseas travel (including to visit our daughter who is studying in the UK) and wondered what research I might helpfully engage in that learned from and supported churches at this particular time. Watching the unfolding situation and the massive changes that Covid-19 responses were necessitating locally and overseas, I was curious about how churches would respond. What adaptations would they make? What would motivate those responses? How would their actions support the holistic wellbeing of people in their churches and wider communities? What changes to worship and ministry would be retained post-Covid?.

This became the subject of my 2021 research leave. I started to gather data on New Zealand and Australian churches via an online questionnaire, before selecting three churches for detailed case studies. Each of these churches had continued to offer an online worship option after a return to onsite worship was possible, and each reported seeing positive aspects of their online experiences. In addition to questionnaire data on those churches, I engaged in interviews and/or focus groups with leaders, participant focus groups, and content analysis and participation in online worship services.

Of course, online church wasn’t new in 2020. In fact, Tim Hutchings traces the history of online churches as far back as the 1980s.[1] Back then though, and through until March 2020, online was optional: religious communities chose to embrace these platforms. Hutchings theorises three motivations for why such choices were made: amplification, connection, and experimentation. Simply put, those motivated by amplification used broadcast technologies to extend the reach of a preacher. Those motivated by a desire for connection sought to provide ways for genuine community to flourish online, perhaps between people who were otherwise isolated due to ideology, distance, or disability. Those motivated by experimentation explored the possibilities that new technologies might provide and (hopefully, at least) reflected theologically on those technologies and experiments.

Once Covid-19 hit, ministers didn’t have many offline options for communicating to, and remaining connected with, their congregations. Previously unimagined adaptations were readily recognised by church leaders as necessary responses to the pandemic. While for many this was purely pragmatic, others saw such change as not only a necessity but also an opportunity to reimagine the church’s form. Churches found that they were able to amplify a message of hope through online weekly worship and regular check-ins from pastoral leaders. These messages provided permission to be honest about the difficult time being faced, as well as offer a sense of stability, comfort, and hope. The broadcasts had a by-product of fostering a sense of connection and other informal and formal means of connection and care were also encouraged and enacted. Practical support was provided as needed. Despite the challenges, church members and the wider community were helped to flourish, even in the midst of struggle. 

As I write this blog post, the omicron variant is spreading vigorously. Late last year, vaccination rates in many parts of the world had given a sense of hope that perhaps things could return to normal. However, this was a short-lived hope. While vaccination helps protect against serious illness, the pandemic is not over. Physical distancing, mask-wearing, capacity limits, and contact tracing are all helpful and necessary as we seek to control the disease’s spread. If onsite gatherings are possible, people who are vulnerable due to age or health issues are likely to continue to need online options for worship and connection.

There is certainly an opportunity for ongoing experimentation, to create places of genuine connection, amplifying a message of hope. At the same time, there is also the opportunity for a deeper reformation, beyond a simple transplanting of onsite worship online. The online space invites deep listening to both gospel and context, in order to shape a church that proclaims the good news, disciples believers, meets human needs, acts in the face of injustice, and seeks to sustain and renew the earth. I’m planning to keep an eye on what develops over the coming months and years, wondering how it (and I) can contribute to the flourishing of our world and its inhabitants.

[1] Timothy Hutchings, Creating Church Online: An Ethnographic Study of Five Internet-Based Christian Communities (Durham University, 2010), 10.

Dr Lynne Taylor is Jack Somerville Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at the University of Otago in Ōtepoti/Dunedin, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and Director and Researcher for AngelWings Ltd.

Her current research is on how churches are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, including how they support the wellbeing of their members and wider communities. Lynne teaches courses relating to church and society. She blogs at www.lynnetaylor.nz and her other writing can be found via https://linktr.ee/lynnetaylor

Feature Photo by Jessica Fadel on Unsplash