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A Sudden Scholar - An Excerpt from I (Still) Believe

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I (Still) BelieveCan serious academic study of the Bible become threatening to one’s faith? I (Still) Believe answers this question with a resounding "Far from it!" Faith enhances study of the Bible and, reciprocally, such study enriches a person’s faith. With this in mind, this book asks prominent Bible teachers and scholars to tell their story reflecting on their own experiences at the intersection of faith and serious academic study of the Bible.

Engage in this excerpt below as Ellen F. Davis (Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology, The Divinity School, Duke University) shares her faith journey.


I am not an accidental biblical scholar, but I am a sudden one, or so it seems to me. I had no intention at all of taking up my current line of work before a certain moment in July 1982 — a year or two past my thirtieth birthday and at the end of my third year of graduate theological education — when I had the split-second recognition that this is what I am called to do. That recognition came in response to a question posed by Sister Mary Kathleen, then Prioress at the Convent of the Incarnation (“Fairacres”), Oxford: “So what are you going to do with your education and your life?”

The bluntness of the question did not surprise me — Sister Mary Kathleen is a plainspoken woman — but the focus of it did. As my spiritual director, her business with me was to help me learn how to pray, uphill work in which we had been engaged for about nine months. Throughout that time she had forbidden me to think about my future, personal or professional. Strange as it sounds in our career-oriented age, it had been easy enough — indeed, a relief — not to think about what I would do with the rest of my life, since I had no good ideas. But now, in our final interview before I left Oxford to return to my seminary studies in California, she wanted an answer.

In fact, I had not gone to seminary for professional reasons. I did not intend to be ordained (and I am not). I went to seminary because I went to church — and that in itself surprised me, because almost none of my friends did. However, by my late twenties I realized that I would probably
keep going to church for the rest of my life, and frankly, I was disappointed in what I found there, intellectually speaking. “There has to be more to it than they are letting on,” I thought, and so I decided to get a theological education. That I had never seriously considered an academic job may be explained by the fact that I grew up in a family that valued academics more as a pleasant diversion than as a profession; besides, I am a strong introvert and had never liked standing in front of people and talking. If I assumed anything about my future work, it was that I would return to the world of non-profit organizations in which I had spent some eight years between university and seminary.

So when Sister Mary Kathleen popped her question, I was completely unprepared for the answer that formed itself instantly on my own lips: “I suppose I need to preach, teach, and exercise a pastoral ministry.”
“That sounds right,” she said, “and how will you do that?”
“I guess I’ll get a doctorate in Old Testament and teach.”
“Yes, that’s good; do that.”

So the decision was made, and some thirteen months later, I arrived in New Haven to begin doctoral studies with Brevard Childs at Yale. I would of course have to grow into the decision that had come so unexpectedly; the hard part was gradually becoming comfortable standing in front of people and talking. It was probably ten years before I could lecture or preach without my stomach churning.

Nonetheless, I felt more relaxed and confident about the decision itself than about others I had struggled to make in the past — simply because this one was not really my decision. In an unreflective instant I had committed to a course of action that I had never previously imagined for myself; I had done so in the presence of and in response to someone whose prayerful judgment I had learned to trust more than I did my own. I had been guided to this point by an indirect process: a regimen of meditative prayer and spiritual counsel extending over nine months. Now I found myself simply trusting that process and following through in obedience.

It was my first conscious experience of participating in such a process of shared, prayerful discernment, which is as old as the monastic life itself, and it changed me. I am now convinced that our modern Western culture places excessive emphasis on the value of individual decision-making. What we think of as the normal steps by which decision-making proceeds — identifying goals, evaluating options, weighing pros and cons, then “deciding for oneself” — is not the only or the best way to make a sound choice. It may be better to submit in trust to the process of guided prayer, under the direction of someone who is deeply experienced in that work. Since that day in 1982, some such process has been part of most or all of my important professional decisions, and sometimes the outcome has been surprising to me, as well as to others close to me. In short, on this and several other occasions I have been led in discernment to make a professional decision I had not expected to make. I trusted that it was the right choice, but in each case it remained unclear to me for some time afterwards why that was so. When the reason or reasons finally did become clear, it always involved factors I could not possibly have foreseen and considered in my own decision-making process.

It now seems to me, looking at my own life among many others, that a realized vocation is something like a tapestry. No one looking at the yet-to-be-assembled threads might have predicted the pattern into which they would eventually fit, but they are all important or necessary for the pattern to take shape. It is in no small part due to my experience with Sister Mary Kathleen that I became a biblical scholar. But of course there is more to the story… (Pgs 43-45)


I (Still) Believe will be available in September. Pre-order your copy here.

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