Beyond Eurocentrism—A Future for Canadian Biblical Studies

On May 31, 2021 I had the privilege of giving my presidential address to the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies (CSBS). This is something every outgoing president does at the end of their term.

A Delayed Presidential Address

I was in the unusual situation of being president of CSBS for two consecutive years (2019–21), something unprecedented in the eighty-eight year history of the Society (which was formed in 1933). In every previous case, a person is elected to become vice-president for a year, then serves as president for the following year, then gives their presidential address.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancelation of the 2020 annual meeting, at which we would have had the election of new officers (those whose terms were up) and at which I would have given my presidential address. Without a formal election of new officers, all the elected officers whose term was up continued pro tem until the next annual meeting.

The executive decided that despite the ongoing pandemic we couldn’t go another year without an annual meeting. But because of the pandemic, they decided that the 2021 annual meeting would be purely virtual.

Since I hadn’t been able to give my presidential address in 2020, I gave it (virtually) in 2021.

A Different Presidential Address

However, it was on a different topic from what I had originally planned.

In 2020 I had planned to focus my presidential address on the Aqedah (Genesis 22), in anticipation of the book I was writing, entitled Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021).

However, new issues arose in the CSBS, along with some external prods, which resulted in me giving a presentation on the past and future of biblical studies in Canada.

In “Beyond Eurocentrism: A Future for Canadian Biblical Studies,” I traced the history of biblical studies in Canada and challenged biblical scholars in Canada to explicitly bring their social and religious context to bear on their academic work, while allowing the Bible to speak to their context.

Here is the abstract of my paper:

The history of Canadian biblical studies, like biblical studies south of the border, has been defined by the attempt to protect academic study of the Bible from religious and ecclesiastical control. Although legitimate in its time, this has resulted in the fictitious ideal of an academic discipline uncontaminated by the contemporary contexts of the interpreter. Not only is such an ideal unattainable (since everyone brings their contexts, explicitly or implicitly, to their academic work), it is ethically problematic, since it has legitimated the Eurocentric orientation of the field as normative, resulting in the marginalization of alternative voices and perspectives.

Thankfully, biblical scholars have begun to take cognizance of how we read the Bible in terms of existential questions arising from our social and ecclesial locations. Besides many publications on the subject of contextual biblical studies over the past thirty years (perhaps beginning with Stony the Road We Trod), the Society of Biblical Literature sponsored two seminars in 2020 called “#Black Scholars Matter.”

Canadian biblical scholars, however, have been slower than our American counterparts to recognize the importance of the interpreter’s context for our field. The question this essay raises is whether we can envision a future for Canadian biblical studies beyond Eurocentrism.

Although I was addressing the Canadian context, I drew significantly on my Jamaican background (including Jamaican traditions of resistance to power) in order to make a particular proposal for the practice of biblical studies in Canada.

You can watch the video of my presidential address here.

The text of the address is being published in the Canadian-American Theological Review. I will post a link here when it is available.

Dominion: The Image of God and the Feminine Experience

Probably no other topic has engaged my interest as the imago Dei—what it means for humans to be made in God’s image.

My interest in the topic began as a personal exploration of my own identity and has blossomed over the years into a long-term research project. It turns out that there are more facets to the imago Dei than are dreamed of in our theology.

Besides my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005), I’ve written over a dozen journal articles, book chapters, encyclopedia entries, and blog posts on various aspects of the subject. And I am deepening my understanding of the imago Dei all the time.

The Image of God in the Ancient Near East and in the Modern World

I was recently interviewed on the subject of the image of God by Deb Gregory for the Betwixt podcast series.

The interview I participated in, which is fifth in a series on “The Image of God and the Feminine Experience,” addresses whether the so-called “functional” interpretation of the imago Dei, which involves human “rule” or “dominion” over the earth (a view that I have argued for in my writings), excludes women—either explicitly or implicitly.

Deb Gregory starts the podcast with an excellent overview of the ancient Near Eastern background to the functional view of the image of God, then raises the question of whether this includes women.

The thirty-five minute interview starts at about the ten minute mark, and is followed by Deb’s brilliant five-minute meditation on implications of the discussion.

You can listen to the podcast  on the Missio Alliance website or on Sound Cloud, which is the home for Betwixt podcasts. Here is the link to my interview (entitled “Dominion”).

Here is Deb’s description of the interview topic:

Near the end of the twentieth century, the Functional View of the image of God emerged with virtual consensus among Old Testament scholars. The discovery of ancient texts which used “image of God” language in reference to kings and cult images led scholars to recast the imago Dei in terms of how a king or priest functions as a royal representation of God.

The Functional View asserts that man was created to be God’s physical representation on earth and to function as his agent and vice-regent in exercising dominion. But what about women? Was Eve also made in the image of God or was she a derivation of the man from whom she was extracted? Did she also possess this royal dominion or was she created to submit under the authority of the man who acted alone as God’s royal representative?

In conversation with theologian J. Richard Middleton, Betwixt explores the Functional View along with questions it raises about dominion, power, gender, ecology, and politics.

The Betwixt Podcast Series on the “Image of God”

If you are interested, you can access all the podcasts on the “The Image of God and the Feminine Experience” on the Missio Alliance website.

1. Introduction to the Image of God & the Feminine Experience

2. Female Men of God & the Early Church

3. Are Women Rational? Let’s Ask Google!

4. Sex Difference & the Image of God

5. Dominion (this is the interview with me)

Other Betwixt Podcasts (including interviews with Walter Brueggemann)

You can listen to other Betwixt podcasts here, including a couple of great conversations with Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann.

Why “Betwixt”?

Here is the website explanation of what the Betwixt podcast tries to accomplish:

The Betwixt podcast is devoted to the betwixing space where faith and culture converge. This intersection, at once sacred and dangerous, sanctions the shedding of our past and the mantling of our becoming. Conversations with fascinating guests will coax us out of our ideological trenches with betwixting stories from the middle space.

On Genesis, Job, and Psalms—Five Recent Essays Published

Five essays I’ve been working on for a while have recently been (or are about to be) published.

I wrote this essay last year for oral presentation at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies and then again at the Society of Biblical Literature. I conceived it as an introductory exploration of the phenomenon of vigorous prayer in the Bible, which grounds research I am currently doing for a book on lament vis-à-vis Abraham and Job. You can download the essay by clicking on its title (or here).

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  • “Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution: Beyond Concordism and Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” Chap. 4 in Evolution and the Fall, ed. by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 67–97.

This essay was written specifically for this collection, at the invitation of the editors. It was the first piece I ever wrote trying to relate the Bible to human evolution. I presented it at a conference in Spring 2015, which led to my becoming a Theological Fellow with BioLogos, writing blog posts for them, and giving a number of related presentations on the Bible and evolution. My approach both in this essay and in the subsequent blogs and presentations on the subject has been to listen to the Bible first, then explore how this might help us understand what scientists are telling us about human evolution.

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For a long time I had been mulling over my sense that most interpreters were misreading God’s response to Job’s complaints; instead of reprimanding Job for daring to question him, I understood God second speech as encouraging him (while his first speech functioned to critique his assumptions and enlarge his vision). So, some years ago I worked up my ideas into a paper that I presented at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies; this led to my being asked to give this paper as the Peter C. Craigie memorial lecture at the University of Calgary. Then I put it away for a while, but reworked it for presentation last year in a Biblical Studies Seminar at St. Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra, Australia. It is now published in their journal with the other papers from the Seminar.  You can download the essay by clicking on its title (or here).

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I’ve always prized Psalm 51 as an amazing articulation of the meaning of repentance. But like the Job paper (above), I had the sense that the traditional reading of this psalm as David’s prayer of confession did not fit the actual story in 2 Samuel 11–12. So I tried out my ideas on the topic a few years back at the Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society and then at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies. I revised the paper for presentation in 2015 in the “Biblical Theology, Hermeneutics, and the Theological Disciplines” Research Group of the Institute for Biblical Research. It is published in a volume of collected papers that have been presented in this research group over the last few years.

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This essay is an exposition of the story of the Garden of Eden, to show how it grounds the dignity of work and the equality of men and women in God’s original intentions for human life. Yet God’s intentions in both cases have been distorted by human sin (and our sinful perspective often leads to our misreading of this story). The essay was commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the founding of Roberts Wesleyan College and the title of the volume comes from the name of the newspaper (The Earnest Christian) published by B. T. Roberts, the founder of the College and of the Free Methodist Church. The essays also function as an earnest of the heritage of the College and of B. T. Roberts’s vision of socially embodied Christianity (he was an evangelical egalitarian back in the nineteenth century and wrote a booklet in 1891 advocating the ordination of women). Although the anniversary of the College was last year, the volume of essays is being published this summer.