I recently had the privilege to interview Ellen F. Davis.
Davis is the Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. She is the author of several books and has a special affinity for the Old Testament.
Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got interested in theology?
Ellen Davis: I am a “cradle Episcopalian,” and as a child I always enjoyed the church service, including the hymns, the liturgical prayers, and sometimes the sermon, more than Sunday school. Since Anglicans “do theology” best through liturgy, I suppose that was my introduction to theology.
I first studied the Bible seriously at the age of 18, when I spent a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
It was ten years later, while working as an administrator at the Protestant Radio and Television Center in Atlanta, that I began to desire a theological education and applied to seminary.
The rest is my personal adult history.
Kurt Manwaring: Have you had any academic mentors in your career that have shaped the way you think?
Ellen Davis: My high school Latin teacher, Robert Kuehnl, was the pre-career mentor who taught me intellectual rigor, and without him, I might never have learned it.
As an undergraduate at the University of California in Berkeley, my philosophy professor Joseph Tussman taught me to read texts in depth, and through careful writing to discover what I thought.
Years later, my Doktorvater Brevard Childs (at Yale University) helped me learn how to do theological exegesis and encouraged me to think in ways that are appropriate for both the academy and the church — even at the same time!
Kurt Manwaring: Are you most proud of your first journal article or your first book? Why?
Ellen Davis: My dissertation became my first book, Swallowing the Scroll (on Ezekiel). I am still pleased with the argument and the way I developed it — that is, in brief compass, in a way that seems to have been genuinely helpful to people who develop their academic careers to Ezekiel (which I do not do).
Kurt Manwaring: You served as Interim Dean of the Duke Divinity School for a year. What is one way this experienced contributed to your academic goals — and one way in which it perhaps presented an obstacle?
Ellen Davis: At this (fairly) late stage in my professional work, contributing to the well-being of the institutions and bodies I serve — especially Duke University and its Divinity School, and the Anglican Communion — is more important to me than personal advancement, which is now more or less a done deal.
As for the Deanship itself, one cannot do much that is genuinely creative as an interim; I tried to foster better communications and processes of decision-making in some areas.
The “obstacle” for me was putting a book manuscript in a drawer for a year and a half, as the deanship was followed by a heavy load of doctoral work and teaching, and I worked on the University’s (very successful) search for a new President.
I am now back at work on the manuscript, with hope of finished in the coming months, thanks be to God.
Kurt Manwaring: You were included in a list of “Ten Important Female Theologians That You Should Be Reading.” How do you feel about being on such a list? Are there any rising female theologians people should keep an eye on?
Ellen Davis: It is an honor to appear on that list with some of my friends and colleagues. Among rising figures, I would mention my colleague Kate Bowler, who is becoming well-known as both a creative and compassionate historian and a practical theologian.
Kurt Manwaring: What would you say to encourage someone who wants to study the Old Testament but feels the language, length, and content daunting?
Ellen Davis: Don’t try to read the whole thing at one go!
For obvious reasons, one good place to start is Genesis.
Take it slowly, a chapter at a time. Learning to read slowly is crucial. Don’t read for plot (you know it!); read for character, for relationships. Look for what surprises you when you slow down.
Moving on, you don’t have to read straight through the whole Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, and probably should not do so. If you want to start with a little book, my annotated translation of Ruth, with woodcuts by Margaret Adams Parker (Who Are You, My Daughter?) might be useful.
Kurt Manwaring: You have written about the ways in which suffering uniquely qualifies one to speak of God. Is there an Old Testament figure other than Job to whom you look as an example of coming to know God through suffering and trial? How have you applied the example of this person in your life
Ellen Davis: I have just mentioned Ruth. She herself embodies the three classic biblical categories of the vulnerable person; she is widow, sojourner, and orphan-by-choice, having left her birth family to accompany Naomi to a foreign land, a small rural town (Bethlehem) where a Moabite woman would be viewed with suspicion.
She is a model for me of someone who crosses borders for the sake of life — borders both literal and figurative, as she acts in unconventional and selfless ways to create a new community out of a situation of profound loss.
I don’t know that I have modeled myself after her, but I tell her story and have found that many people, especially my colleagues working in reconciliation work in East Africa, respond strongly to it.
Kurt Manwaring: As a church, Mormons focus on the Old Testament every four years. What are some benefits of returning to this text on a regular basis? What might be some drawbacks of only focusing on it every fourth year?
Ellen Davis: The most obvious benefit is that the OT is three quarters of the Christian Bible, and the New Testament assumes that readers know the story, locate themselves with reference to the story, and also know how to think theologically in ways that the Old Testament sets forth (e.g., in terms of covenant, exile, the kingdom of God).
Since some churches NEVER focus on the OT, I would say that a genuine focus every four years is a decent average!
Kurt Manwaring: Have you encountered anything in your academic career that has tried your faith? Should non-academics be afraid of history and theology when it comes to their religious beliefs?
Ellen Davis: No, I have not. On the contrary, an adult lifetime of study, including history and theology, has given substance to my faith.
History helps us to see how these texts have emerged from cultures and situations where we can recognize the basic challenges that the original hearers faced; it should also enable us to see how those cultures differed (greatly) from our own, so we often have to adjust our thinking to comprehend the Bible.
Theology is altogether a matter of learning to think in radically new ways, to see the wider dimensions of reality which we mostly overlook in the press of our daily business — until we suddenly discover our need to think in new ways, to reckon more fully with the “invisible” dimensions of our lives.
Being a professional theologian is an enormous privilege, simply because it challenges me to think daily about what is most essential for a truly human life.
Kurt Manwaring: Today, politics seem to reach into nearly every aspect of daily life. Animosity and skepticism seem to be bleeding from the political sphere into our day-to-day lives. Could you give us an example of how biblical interpretation could be applied to this situation?
Ellen Davis: The Bible does not ignore the political dimensions of life. It takes them seriously (think of the books of Samuel and Kings, and the Prophets), but it reminds us that they are not ultimate.
Nor are they the place where (in most cases) full humanity is most fully realized.
I mentioned Ruth above. That little book begins “in the days when the judges were judging Israel”; thus the redemptive story of covenant loyalty demonstrated among ordinary people stands in contrast to the book of Judges, which is mostly about public figures, self-absorbed political and religious leaders who send Israel into a downward spiral.
Yet politics is not a completely separate sphere of existence; it is out of the family of Ruth that the royal house of David is born. Ruth is “the mother of the Messiah.” The house of David is of course wracked with much human evil and trouble, and yet the biblical tradition in both Testaments never gives up hope of redemption coming from it.
Kurt Manwaring: If you could enter the dreams of anyone living today and implant a biblical interpretation in his or her mind, who would you select and why? What contemporary issue would you hope to resolve by having this influential figure incorporate biblical interpretation into their thoughts and actions?
Ellen Davis: Well, in these desperate and dangerous times, I would seek a change of heart for the President of the United States.
I would not focus on a single issue. Rather, I would ask for him to have a listening heart, a capacity for recognizing the need for repentance, which is the mark of every good king in the Bible, and genuine wisdom — also associated with kingship at its best. Biblical wisdom begins with “fear of the Lord” — that is, with humble recognition of the true Source of power, genuine security, and compassionate leadership.