Karen R. Keen is an instructor and Ph.D. Candidate in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity at Marquette University. She earned her B.S. from Corban University, M.S. from Western Oregon University, M.A. from Western Seminary, and Th.M. from Duke University Divinity School. Keen blogs at Interpreting Scripture.
How did you decide to become a biblical scholar? Share your autobiographical journey.
Scripture has always captivated me. In junior high I bought a Greek primer in hopes of reading the New Testament in its original language. However, the tradition I was raised in did not believe women should teach, preach, or contribute new interpretations of the text. Even though I eventually rejected that view, the message was so ingrained that it never occurred to me to consider seminary. I had never met a woman biblical scholar or seminarian. Only after I was established in a student affairs career at the University of California (UCSC) did I begin taking classes toward a Master’s degree in exegetical theology. While at UCSC I developed an increasing desire to be on the teaching side of academia. My job allowed me to guest lecture (on disability law), and I enjoyed engaging with students on pertinent topics. For example, while walking around campus I observed flyers for events that highlighted the tensions in Israeli and Palestinian relations. So I organized a campus forum on “God in the Middle East: Faith and Palestinian/Israeli Reconciliation.” The Christian, Jewish, and Muslim panelists discussed how their faith contributed to principles of peacemaking and how religion can be a source of healing rather than violence. Afterward students asked me to serve as a moderator for a Sustained Dialogue group.
However, despite my love for working with students and my “side interest” in the Bible, it was not immediately obvious to me that I could or should pursue a career in biblical scholarship. The messages I learned in my youth about women teaching Bible were still operating in the background. It was not until a male pastor unexpectedly suggested I consider seminary that things began to click. Taking courses in Greek and Hebrew, hermeneutics, church history, and various books of the Bible was invigorating and exciting. By my last semester at Western Seminary I knew without a doubt I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. In order to prepare for that beyond my M.A. I took a year to earn my Th.M. at Duke where I enjoyed learning from professors like Ellen F. Davis, Stephen Chapman, Anathea Portier-Young, Kavin Rowe, Sujin Pak, and Lucas Van Rompay. I also worked as a preceptor for the Old and New Testament courses while I was preparing applications for doctoral work. I am now in the dissertation stage at Marquette University.
Tell us about your work (past and current). What are you most excited about right now? What do you hope your work will contribute?
Currently, my dissertation project focuses on Israelite ethics and violence against children in the Hebrew Bible . I am exploring the cultural influences and moral theology that shaped Israelite perspectives on killing of children and how those views were eventually challenged (or not). That might seem too morbid to get excited about, but what inspires me to study such a difficult topic is the way it interfaces with important questions: How do we understand the Bible as sacred text when it includes troubling narratives? What does studying the hard passages teach us about best hermeneutical practices? In what ways do human beings rationalize violence (past and now)? How do such texts inform theodicy? What do our interpretations of these texts reveal about our conceptions of God? Of children? Of ancient peoples?
In addition to violence and ethics in the Old Testament, other research interests include hermeneutics and theological method, family systems and sexuality in antiquity, and reception history of the Old Testament. Most recently, I presented a paper on “Song of Songs in the Eyes of Rashi and Nicholas of Lyra: Comparing Jewish and Christian Exegesis.” Next month I will present on “Is This Literal or is That Literal: Problematizing the Definition of the Literal Sense.” Other papers in the queue will address the Gog of Magog oracle, as well as ethical issues in scholarly interpretation of the Old Testament.
Who has most influenced you as a scholar? Tells us a bit about it.
The first person who comes to mind is Ellen F. Davis. I had the privilege of taking an independent study on the book of Ezekiel with her. She capitalized on my interest in apocalyptic themes as a means to guide me in the “art” of reading Scripture. She helped me understand the importance of reception history across time and not just the latest interpretive trends, as well as how to engage conversational partners like Paul Ricoeur. Davis is not only an excellent teacher, but also a brilliant scholar. Her work is technically precise and relevant at the same time. She brings Scripture into conversation with contemporary concerns, not by superimposing alien meaning onto the text but through a close reading of it (e.g. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible.) I hope to achieve similar integration in my own work.
Joshua E. Burns also challenges me in beneficial ways. I was fortunate to have him assigned to me as my advisor when I first came to Marquette. Subsequently, I have taken a course on rabbinic interpretation with him and TA’d/guest lectured for his classes on Jewish texts of the Hellenistic period. Even though we differ on certain aspects of methodology, Burns has helped me balance theological interpretation with solid grounding in historical-critical work (he studied with John Collins at Yale). I am grateful for his influence in making me a more well-rounded scholar.
Finally, Abraham Heschel, who I never had the privilege to meet, nevertheless inspires me to hold fast to passion and integrity in my work. Heschel was not always accepted by his colleagues. He wanted to color outside the lines of academic aloofness. He wanted to bring too much of his heart into his projects. The academy can be a difficult place to hold onto one’s integrity. There are so many pressures to compete, overwork, or conform to particular methodologies. Heschel reminds me to have courage to bring my heart into my work. He reminds me I am not merely studying a dead text, but a book that can infuse the imagination and transform the soul. I love how his writing manages to both educate me and stir me to worship at the same time.
What are the most pressing issues or concerns you have related to the broader field of biblical studies?
I am concerned about unhealthy trends toward quantity versus quality in scholarship. No longer can someone take ten years to put out a true masterpiece. Now there is pressure to churn out a book every other year. The drive to produce or inhale the latest, greatest thing can impede the careful scholarship that stands the test of time. Sometimes the pace makes us forget what we are doing and why. Ideas have power to shape minds and therefore the world–for better or for worse. This is especially true of the Bible which many hold as authoritative and influential in how they think and act. Teaching and writing about Scripture carries with it responsibility and requires wisdom and patience.
On the more optimistic side, I see great potential in the area of scholarship that incorporates ecumenical efforts. Attending graduate school at Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic institutions has opened my eyes to the richness of learning and dialoguing with those who read the biblical text in a slightly different way. Having Jewish professors (two who are co-directing my dissertation) has also been meaningful. I want to encourage more of this collaborative scholarly engagement in the academy.
What is Scripture? And what is it for? Or, in other words, why study the biblical text?
The biblical text is meaningful for anyone to study whether one is religious or not. It has had a significant impact on culture not only in the West but around the world. A better understanding of it can facilitate productive dialogue between people of various ideological persuasion. However, Scripture is especially for the community of faith and best interpreted in the context of Church or synagogue. It is a narrative of redemption that shapes identity and transforms lives. Studying the biblical texts helps us to know God and our selves with the ultimate goal of bringing reconciliation, justice, and love into every relationship.
What do you like to do for fun?
I know it’s a nerdy thing to say, but I actually like studying for fun. I also love writing, including for my blog. Simple things like hanging out with friends makes me happy. I love creating things whether it’s a family history project or an amateur video. Most of all I enjoy being in nature. If I could hike at Yosemite or Banff 24/7 I would be in heaven.
Anything else you would like to share?
One of the things that keeps me grounded and invigorated is my work as a spiritual director. Walking alongside others as they seek God allows me a front row seat into how God is present in daily life—even amid our doubts and struggles.