Category: 2023

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).