By Kaya Prasad and Ellen Davis

Asking Good Questions: An Interview with Ellen Davis [uncut version]

Kaya Prasad: What first drew you into the field of biblical studies, and why did you choose to study Hebrew in particular?

Ellen Davis: When I was eighteen I went to Jerusalem for my junior year of university at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I studied Hebrew intensively that year and loved it. But I didn't really intend to be entering biblical studies or using Hebrew professionally for something like a dozen years, and in the meantime I did a lot of different things. One of the things I did was work in religious communications, and out of that I decided I wanted to go to seminary. In my third year of seminary I realized that I was called to teach, which came as complete surprise to me, but once I knew that I was called to teach, then it was obvious to me what I would teach, because I had always enjoyed Bible, and Hebrew had been important to me for a long time.

KP: What led you to pursue a career in academia rather than as clergy?

ED: I've never felt the slightest calling to ordained ministry. I investigated it in a sense, of course, because I was in denominational seminary — my own denomination; I'm an Episcopalian. In order to be open to [ordination] as a possibility I did do a Master of Divinity rather than a two-year MTS kind of degree. I'm glad I did that, because while there's never been a change in my sense that I am not called to ordained ministry, the opportunity and even the requirement to preach turned out to be very useful, because I do have a calling to preach.

KP: How did that calling come about, and what do you feel led to do with preaching?

ED: It became evident to me the summer after my first year at seminary. I was doing Clinical Pastoral Education in a parish setting, and part of what I needed to do was preach. It was the last thing I was interested in doing. I had not at that point taken a homiletics class. I did not like public speaking, but as soon as I got into the pulpit I knew that it didn't matter whether I liked it or not. That was part of what I was supposed to be doing. That was pretty strongly affirmed by the people who heard me preach.

In my teaching I regularly assign certain sermons to my students to read, and I've found that that generally opens up a fruitful theological conversation. Preaching continues to be one of the places that I develop my theology, and I continue to think that preaching is, for me, the most intimate way of doing theology, because you're preparing it with an audience in mind, and you're going to be delivering it — except in these times — you're going to be delivering it to people you can actually see, and you can gauge the body language, their faces, you speak to them afterwards. It has more immediacy than writing something that people are going to be reading.

KP: It seems like your calling to teach and your calling to preach are related, at least insofar as you have written about preaching. Is there an important distinction in the way you deliver a lecture in class versus deliver a sermon, or think about how you write them?

ED: Not a huge difference. In both cases I am speaking largely from prepared text — I'm not somebody who "wings" much of anything — so not hugely. But normally when I lecture I have more time than when I preach, so it takes me longer in most cases to write a sermon, because it's like writing a poem. It has to say something that strikes the ear. You can't go back and say, "Now what I really mean is..." There's more latitude in a lecture. A sermon, as far as I'm concerned, has to make one point, and you need to know from the beginning what the point is you're trying to make, and you just drive through it, so it takes more focus. It's harder to preach than it is to lecture.

KP: Is there anything you feel that you can do in a sermon that you can't do in a lecture?

ED: A couple of things. First of all, because the sermon is embedded in a service, you can think about the larger context of prayer and hymnody as you're preparing it. I can make references to those in a lecture, but the lecture doesn't have the organic connection to liturgy, sacrament, hymnody that a sermon does. That also gives more emotive content and power to a sermon than to a lecture. Occasionally a lecture will rise to the point of having something like the emotive power of a sermon. In a regular classroom lecture, there are certain methods, there are certain principles that you're trying to get across, certain information that you're trying to communicate, and the emotive content, while not absent entirely, takes a back seat.

KP: Have you ever had doubts about your call to teach, or the significance of the work that you do?

ED: No. It was not at all what I had imagined my life would be, but once it came, it was so clear. I found it difficult because I am naturally very introverted. I think by effort I have become somewhat more extroverted, but that was not natural for me. As a graduate student in my first year of teaching I didn't have any doubt, but I was working, in a sense, against my grain. The study comes very naturally to me, but the hard part was accepting that I was called to teach. Already in my second year as a doctoral student I was teaching, and I loved it from the beginning. Hard though it may be to believe, I've almost never had a bad experience in a classroom. There was nothing not to like, but it took some getting used to for me in particular.

KP: That's pretty amazing, if you've never had a bad experience in the classroom. Do you feel that you have encountered any external obstacles as you've pursued your education and career in biblical studies?

ED: No. From the beginning, my undergraduate time, it turned out I was in great places to do what I now do, even though I didn't expect to do it. Learning Hebrew when I was eighteen was a real advantage; it's easier to learn Hebrew when you're eighteen than when you're older. In seminary, in the doctoral program, I had wonderful mentors and teachers who liked my work and liked me as a person and treated me with respect and gave me lots of latitude, and I sort of need latitude. They weren't telling me what to do all the time. That was partly why I chose the doctoral program I chose, because I thought they were interested in things I was interested in, but I had a pretty good idea they were not going to try to make me in their image. And then I've had four great teaching jobs, so no, I have to say, what's not to like? I've had a great time.

Maybe the only thing I didn't just love — five years ago I was the interim dean at the Divinity School, and while I'm a decent administrator, I don't wake up in the morning to do administrative work, so it was, again, somewhat against my grain. But I knew going in that I was only going to do it until they could find somebody who really wanted to do it.

KP: Do you think that there's any really good surprise that came out of that time for you?

ED: I had wonderful staff working with me, and that was a real privilege, and I actually loved working with the students in that role. It was a different role than being a teacher, and while I missed the intimacy of the classroom I discovered that there's a different kind of, maybe not intimacy, but genuine fondness that I felt with especially the incoming class that year because, in my own seminary experience, I remembered how important certain things the dean had said were in my first couple of weeks, so I was careful that year that the students knew what I stood for, and therefore what the school as represented by me at that time stood for. And I had a lot of affirmation, not only that year but in subsequent years, that people listened to that, and it made a difference.

So yes, that was a happy thing. I mean it wasn't all awful! But I remember saying to one of my cousins, "This is how most people feel about their jobs. It's just something you do because it comes your way and it kinda needs to be done." And my cousin said, "Oh, I'm so sorry!"

KP & ED: [laugh]

ED: But most of the time I think I've got the best job in the world.

KP: Since you teach in a divinity school, the connection between faith and work seems fairly overt, but what would you say are some particular ways that your faith shapes the work you do?

ED: Well, I would say that, first of all, I never considered teaching in an environment other than a seminary or a divinity school. While my undergraduate degree, as I've told you, was at the University of California in Berkeley and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, two secular places, I never considered teaching at a liberal arts college or a university such as the one that I attended. I knew that I wanted what I consider to be the freedom to speak confessionally; I can speak as a Christian. I don't always assume that my students are Christians, while most of them in the Divinity School are. This year for instance, this past year and again this coming year, I'll be teaching a class that has undergraduates in it. Well, of course I don't assume that they are Christians, but I have the freedom at least to acknowledge that I am and to show how that shapes a particular way of looking at a text. I try very much to indicate that it's not the only way to look at a text and to give other people freedom to read in different ways, but I like being able to bring in the explicitly confessional element and to show how people with religious commitment have read this text, because that's what interests me most, and because the text was written by people who had a religious commitment — which was somewhat different from mine, but certainly in the same family.

Because teaching and preaching are for me closely related activities, I love teaching in a place where I also get opportunities to preach, and I love preaching in a place where I also get to teach. At the Divinity School, I do consider that I have — in a secondary sense I consider that I have some pastoral responsibility to my students, and I like that.

KP: I think the students like it too.

ED: Thank you [laughs]. It's also the case that most of what I have to give to my students is in the classroom. I used to teach at a denominational seminary, my own denomination, in which for most faculty, very much of their interaction with students was outside the classroom. I liked that job, although I like my current job better, but even in that job I felt, and I told the dean, ninety percent of what I have to give to students, I'm going to give in the classroom. And then if there's follow-up outside, that's very appropriate, and even at Duke Divinity School, some of that occasionally becomes somewhat personal, because somebody needs to talk about something to someone that they at least trust a little bit. I wouldn't do extended pastoral work with any of my students; I'm not qualified to do that, but I can at least point them in some directions.

KP: Do you feel like your saying that ninety percent of what you have to offer to students is in the classroom — do you feel like that's uncommon for faculty, generally or at Duke specifically?

ED: I don't think it's uncommon at Duke at all. If you need to do a lot of writing, then you're going to be doing less personal interaction. It's partly a decision of the institution and of the faculty person, about the shape of one's vocation and what are the things you absolutely have to do, and one of the things I feel I absolutely have to do is write, so I have to make time for it.

KP: You have written on quite a range of subjects, from issues like ecology and interfaith relations to practices like preaching and arts for theology. You've written about every part of the Old Testament. Would you identify a connecting thread that links all the academic work you’ve done or links together all of your interests in these things?

ED: I would say that the question that underlies everything — including even my first book, which was my dissertation on Ezekiel — the question is, "So what?" If we read the text this way, who cares? What difference does it make? My questions are questions of practical theology, and I think that biblical theology, when it's well done, is a practical discipline, so I'm seeking to interpret texts in ways that are useful to communities of faith. Most of my books, not all, but many of them I hope will be useful to Jews as well as to Christians.

KP: Could you say more about why you are interested in making work that's useful to Jewish communities as well as Christian communities and what that looks like?

ED: When I was eighteen, as I said, I spent a year in Jerusalem. Almost all my friends were Jewish, and this was the late sixties, so it was only a little over twenty years after the end of the war. Probably all of my friends' parents had numbers on their arms; they were all survivors, and for most of my Israeli friends, I was the first Christian they had known. In some cases, I would be the first Christian who had been in their home, been in their world since Auschwitz. Some of them went to Auschwitz because Christians betrayed them. So because of the fact that they took me into their lives, and some of those people are amongst my closest friends, I've always been aware of the other community with whom we share these texts.

I didn't really begin studying the Bible until I was a late teenager, and my first teachers were Jews, and I was reading with other Jews, so that has shaped me, and it's an enormous privilege. This morning, a friend of mine who's a rabbi wrote to me and said, "What do you think's going on in this text in Exodus? Why do you think it's this way?" So we had an exchange about that, and he sent me a rabbinic response concerning that. It honors me. I have another friend who's a rabbi who's dying right now, and a third friend who's a rabbi wrote and said, "I think he'd like to study with you." That that's something that he wishes to do at this time in his life, that's an enormous privilege, so that's why I always write with that community in mind, and I am fortunate that a fair number of learned Jews find my writing useful to them. As you know, that's not been the way it's been between Christians and Jews through the centuries. That we can do some of that now, I consider that an enormous privilege after sixteen centuries of Christians persecuting Jews, that some are still interested in how we think.

KP: As you bear Jewish communities in mind, what elements of your understanding in this area do you work to convey to your readers and your Christian students through your writing and teaching?

ED: Certainly in my writing I refer to Jewish interpretations of scripture with some regularity, so if you have ears to hear, you get it. My Jewish friends fairly often comment that when they read me, I sound like a Christian, but it still makes sense to them. 

Both in my classroom and in my writing, I assume that most of my Christian students have virtually no awareness of how Jews think religiously. Therefore, I try to help them discover that it's interesting how Jews think religiously, it makes sense, and it's fun to learn about. And I consider, again, that that opens a door that has been shut and nailed pretty tight for about sixteen centuries or more. It's the little bit I can do, so I feel very strongly about trying to do it, I hope in an inviting way rather than a scolding way.

I also assume that insofar as my Christian students think anything at all about how Jews might think theologically — to use a word that Christians use much more liberally than Jews — much of what they think is wrong. They think that Judaism is very wooden, very uncompromising, death-dealing, and it's just awful to be a Jew, and the more religious you are the more awful it is, and I just think that's wrong [laughs].

KP: What drew you into the scholarly discourse around theology and arts, and what do you find compelling about it?

ED: The first major thing was my friendship with Margaret Adams Parker, who is the printmaker [and sculptor] with whom I did the book on Ruth, Who Are You My Daughter?...When I came to the Divinity School, I mentioned to [Dean] Greg Jones that, by and large, the art at Duke University was terrible and that I thought it was a public disgrace, and I suggested that he commission a piece of sculpture by Margaret Adams Parker. He got interested in that idea and...we broke ground on what became Goodson...and he took my suggestion and decided that we would put some good art in it, so I got to be on that committee....

Then maybe going back something like four years stepdaughter had just asked me to start working with her dance company on the Psalms, so I did just a little bit with them; I did a workshop. Then I was going to Princeton a few months later and I wrote to Mako [Fujimura, the painter], told him that I was coming, told him...that I expected to be working on the Psalms and dance for the next few years, and he wrote back, and he said, "Well, that's amazing, because I've just decided to paint the Psalter." Then we began this project together, he and I, and brought in the dancers and others.

I think what especially the artists have discovered is that what was missing for them before was either Christian community in connection with their art — that's certainly what Mako would say — or, Ekklesia had Christian community in connection with their art, but they didn't have a way of thinking theologically about what they were doing. I found that really compelling, that these various artists want to study theology and biblical interpretation, and I can help them do that.

KP: What have you learned from this collaboration about how one thinks theologically about art and art-making?

ED: One of my doctoral students commented, after having been my teaching assistant for the Old Testament Interpretation class, that he thought the amount that I use art, just to show somebody's visual interpretation of something even if I don't do a lot with it, was one of the most effective ways to open people up to the notion that there is more than one way to read a text. I've found that many of my students are not particularly adept at reading complex texts. Not necessarily their background. But you are a very visual generation, so if I throw an image up and say to you all, "What do you see?" the room will not be silent. If I put a poem up, or a complicated text and say, "Talk to me about this," then people are gonna be much shy-er to do that. So in some ways it's pedagogical reasons that have made art so important for me, and I just enjoy it. It's beautiful, it's interesting, and sometimes it says very hard things — if you're looking at an image of the Levite’s concubine dismembered, it says a hard thing but you don't necessarily have to use a lot of words. You just show it and let it speak for itself.

And I’ll say one more thing: the church that was the founding church for Ekklesia, the contemporary ballet company, at the time that the company was founded, that church described itself avowedly, unapologetically as a fundamentalist church, and they now say of themselves — the pastor says it from the pulpit — "We are on a journey out of fundamentalism.” They're not repudiating everything they thought before, but they're opening a much wider conversation, and the arts and their centrality in that church have been a very big part of that. The arts have also been an important part of women's leadership emerging in that church because the primary art that they work with is dance, and the leaders of the company are women.

I see the arts as building bridges between different ways of looking, thinking. They can create shared sympathies, perhaps, and a sense of wonder and delight. A theological argument does not always create wonder and delight.

KP: Depends on the person [laughs], but yes, I see what you're saying. I do have one more question: what advice would you give to people who want to read the Bible well, but don’t have a seminary education?

ED: Almost all of my books are written for such an audience. What I'm assuming is that people have patience with the Bible, that they're willing to move slowly, they're willing to entertain a lot of detail, but I do not assume that they know Hebrew. I do not assume that they know what the Documentary Hypothesis is. I don't assume they're Christians.

In terms of advice, then, I would say, find a good teacher, whether that's a person you see or whether that's somebody you read, and read slowly, and learn how to ask good questions. The questions are more important than the answers, and frankly a lot of bad theology is done by people asking bad questions, fruitless questions. I try in my writing and my teaching to help people learn to ask good questions. I try to offer some plausible answers, but if you don't buy them, that's okay.

KP: What are good questions?

ED: “Why this word?” That's a little tricky if you're reading in translation, but, “Why did the biblical writer put it this way?”

“What does the biblical writer want to tell me?” — which is not always the first question that's in my mind — but, “Where do they want my attention to be? What are the things that they don't bother to tell me that I might really wish they did?” It's important to notice what a text doesn't say as well as what it does [laughs], because some of the things we argue about are things that the Bible doesn't say.

Another good question is, “Within the covers of the Bible itself, what different ways are there for looking at this?” It's not very helpful to say, "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that's that on that," because in most cases there's more than one way to think about it. “What might I gain from noticing that variety?” You can notice it as early as the second chapter of Genesis when you notice it's rather different from the first chapter of Genesis [laughs]. "Why didn't they choose one and not the other, or iron out the differences? Do I get something more from that complexity?” Good questions are questions that tease out complexity and take the complexity of the text seriously instead of trying to get to some neat bottom line and move on.

KP: I like that as a summary, and I think it goes back to what you've been saying about art as a way in as well, how it opens us up to those multiple interpretations.

ED: It also goes back to what I was saying about Jews, because Jews have much, much more patience with the Bible than we do. They read it much, much more slowly, and they read centuries of commentary, and they think about it. Again, this rabbi — today I've received two messages from rabbis. One is giving me a contemporary interpretation of a problem of GMOs: what does Leviticus think about that? And somebody else wrote something in his blog that was a Talmud story, so that goes back to fourth to sixth century. That kind of patience with texts — that's something that most Christians don't have, and that's really one of the main things I've learned from my Jewish colleagues.

KP: Thank you so much, this has been a wonderful conversation. I feel like I have learned a lot about you and about reading the Bible, so thank you so much for talking with me.

ED: Thank you, I enjoyed it.


Photo by Mark Ryman from Pixabay.

About the Author

Kaya works as Biblical Research and Ministry Specialist at Glorify Performing Arts, a non-profit, Christian ballet company in Pennsylvania. She holds an MTS and Certificate in Theology and the Arts from Duke Divinity School. She received her BA from Grinnell College, where she was a student leader in her InterVarsity chapter from 2015 to 2019. Kaya enjoys studying languages, ancient and modern, and dancing incessantly to meditate on theological concepts or to connect with her friends and community.

Ellen F. Davis is Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. The author of eleven books and many articles, her research interests focus on how biblical interpretation bears on the life of faith communities and their response to urgent public issues, particularly the ecological crisis and interfaith relations. A lay Episcopalian, she has long been active as a theological consultant within the Anglican Communion. Her current work explores the arts as modes of scriptural interpretation. 

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