Interview: Mitzi J. Smith

MitziSmith (2)Rev. Dr. Mitzi J. Smith is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary in Detroit. She earned her B.A. from Columbia Union College, M.A. from The Ohio State University, M.Div. from Howard University School of Divinity, and Ph.D. from Harvard University. She blogs at Womanist Biblical Scholar Reflections and can be reached at: mitzijsmith@gmail.com.

How did you decide to become a biblical scholar? Share your autobiographical journey.

I decided to attempt to become a biblical scholar in my second year as a M.Div. student at Howard University Divinity School (HUSD). Initially, I had no idea what I would do after earning my M.Div. I was just compelled to complete my ministerial training, which I began in 1981 at Columbia Union College (CUC) where I earned a BA in Theology. When I enrolled at HUSD in 1995 I was working fulltime as a legal secretary in downtown DC. I knew then that I would likely leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA). It had never entered my mind that I could be a biblical scholar. Even though I had biblical scholars as instructors for my undergraduate in theology, the possibility was never presented to me as an option (all my professors were white males and I was the only female entering the theology program in that year). A white female had entered the program a year or so ahead of me and upon completion of her degree she was offered a secretarial position in a SDA conference office. I don’t know if she ever became a pastor (the SDA church does hire women now as pastors but still does not ordain them for pastoral ministry!). So, as a woman and particularly as a black woman, I was not supposed to be in that program at all. Black SDA churches had been even slower than their white counterparts at hiring female pastors. And most black SDAs went to Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. More than ten years later I enrolled at HUSD where I encountered my first African American biblical scholar and where I was encouraged and mentored to become a biblical scholar by Profs Cain Hope Felder, Michael Newheart and Gene Rice and others. 

As a M.Div. student I took a doctoral level class in the Acts of the Apostles from Prof. Joseph Fitzmyer at Catholic University (as part of the theological consortium). I was the only master’s student in the class and it was rigorous and conservative, but I enjoyed learning from a prolific NT scholar whose work I also admired. The womanist theology course I took from Prof. Kelly Brown Douglas at HUSD had a great impact on my journey as well; womanist criticism is the dominant lens I now use for reading biblical texts. I graduated from HUSD with my M.Div. in 1998 but stayed a fourth year to study Latin, German Reading, French Reading, and Middle Egyptian hieroglyphs. I was eventually accepted into the doctoral program at Harvard University and began there in fall of 1999. The excellent, prolific, and compassionate biblical scholar Prof. François Bovon (1938-2013) was my advisor; he was both a fine scholar and human being from whom I learned a lot and from whom I received the encouragement and support I needed in difficult and stressful times. I took African American biblical interpretation from Prof. Allen Callahan when he was at Harvard and I learned a lot from him as well. Others who impacted me and my scholarship at Harvard included Drs. Ellen Aitken (1961-2014), Laura Nasrallah, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Karen King.

Tell us about your work (past and current). What are you most excited about right now? What do you hope your work will contribute?

In 1999, before matriculating at Harvard, I wrote an essay on ancient Greco-Roman slavery and the NT that was printed in the African American Jubilee Bible. Consequently I was invited to write an essay on the same subject for the first African American Commentary of the NT, True to Our Native Land (Fortress, 2007). In the same volume I wrote a short commentary on Ephesians that has been very well received. While a student at Harvard I wrote the essay, “Understand Ye a Parable!: The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles as Parable Narrative (Apocrypha 13 [2002: 29-52]). I attempted to demonstrate how that text could be identified as a parable narrative; Prof Bovon translated the abstract for that article into French for me. I wrote the paper originally for a class Prof. Bovon taught on the Christian Apocrypha. I am proud of that piece because it came out of that course, which was my first in depth intro to the Christian Apocrypha, and was published in an international journal while I was still a doctoral student.

In an article I wrote and that was published in Black Theology entitled, “’Unbossed and Unbought’: Zilpha Elaw and Old Elizabeth and a Political discourse of Origins” (BT 9, no. 3 [2011]: 287-311) I discuss how two nineteenth century black preaching women used scripture to legitimize their special calls to preach; I argue that they engaged in a political discourse of legitimization. My first book, which is a revision of my dissertation, The Literary Construction of the Other. Charismatics, the Jews, and Women (Pickwick, 2011) discusses how othering occurs in the biblical text and argues that we must be conscious and critical of it because such othering impacts our social relations. I am proud of my first co-edited volume (with Dr. Lalitha Jayachitra), Teaching All Nations. Interrogating the Matthean Great Commission (Fortress, 2014) which consists of articles by historians, theologians, Christian education scholars, biblical scholars and non-academics from the Global South and the North. We critique the use and impact of the so-called great commission (Matt 28:18-20). I question the very nomenclature and its elevation to iconic status relegating social justice to the periphery or discounting it altogether.

MSmithBookMy latest book, which should be available any day now, I Found God in Me. A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader (Cascade, 2015) is a significant and seminal text. It is a collection of articles about womanist theories of biblical interpretation and theology and cutting edge womanist interpretations of biblical texts by black women biblical scholars. Over the last few years I published three womanist readings which are reprinted in that volume as well as two newly written unpublished essays I wrote. I am excited about all the essays in that text. And I am also excited about new womanist readings that I am completing for other volumes.

Who has most influenced you as a scholar? Tell us a bit about it.

I don’t know that I could point to one scholar who influenced me the most, but I would say that the womanist scholars/ship have had a great impact on me and is what drives my research and writing now. A womanist biblical interpretative lens allows me to read the biblical text with issues of relevance for black women and marginalized communities as a priority, particularly social justice issues. So I would mention the scholarship of Drs. Kelly Brown Douglas, Katie Geneva Cannon, JoAnne Terrell, Renita Weems, Clarice Martin, Delores Williams, Jacquelyn Grant, Emilie Townes, Karen Baker-Fletcher and others as well as those scholars who produced and wrote for Stony the Road we Trod, the seminal text on African American biblical interpretation.

What are the most pressing issues or concerns you have related to the broader field of biblical studies?

The most pressing concern for me in the broader field of biblical studies is the need to be relevant in terms of important social justice issues (poverty, racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.) and the continued need for diversity in the guild, in the classroom, and in our scholarship.

Why study the scriptures/biblical text?

It is important for me to study the scriptures because I believe this is part of my vocation which I believe is very much related to my faith in the God about whom the Scriptures testify and claim to speak for at times. It is important to study the scriptures because nobody just reads the biblical text; the biblical text is and must be interpreted. And the question remains how shall we interpret? And what is the impact of our interpretations on interactions among humans and between humans and the rest of creation and the earth? How we interpret will determine our theology and our ethics…how we speak about God, represent God, and treat our fellow human beings.

What do you like to do for fun?

I exercise (which is sometimes fun, and sometimes not so much), travel, spend time with my grandnieces and nephews, urban ballroom dancing now and again, paint a little, and watch good movies, particularly comedies.

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One Response to Interview: Mitzi J. Smith

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival – February 2015 |

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