Interview: Mariam J. Kamell Kovalishyn

M_KamellDr. Mariam J. Kamell Kovalishyn is Assistant Professor of New Testament Studies at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. She earned a BA from Davidson College, MA from Denver Seminary, and PhD from University of St. Andrews.

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

It was more by accident than intention, at least on my end. In the sovereignty of God, I am sure he was organizing my steps, my plan never involved me being a scholar. My dream growing up was to be a housewife. As life progressed, however, it became pretty clear that dream wasn’t opening up. In the meantime, I had majored in a combination of Classics/English/History in my undergrad, largely because I had a Latin teacher I adored and I ended up with too many Classics classes to ignore. I also did a semester abroad in Greece and fell in love with the country and history (as I’d always loved the mythology). However, having written a thesis in my undergrad and having it go a bit sideways, I swore off school forever, particularly any schooling that would involve large writing projects. 

After a year out of college doing youth ministry, I decided if I was going to go into ministry, I should have a greater familiarity with the Bible — something about teachers bearing more responsibility? — and so settled on Denver Seminary, partly because of the nearby mountains. I also chose New Testament because I figured the world would at least be familiar, and indeed it was. But now for the first time my Classics studies really made sense to me — this world that I’d studied and loved mattered for how I was to live now! It mattered that I had an intuitive sense of the ancient world, and through professors like Craig Blomberg, Bill Klein, Rick Hess, and Danny Carroll, the whole Bible opened up to me, becoming indeed the living and active Word of God. Instead of Classics preparing me to flip burgers, it prepared me to appreciate the world into which Jesus became incarnate. From there the path was a bit more straightforward – I did well, I was encouraged, Craig actually allowed me to co-author a commentary with him when I was just finished with my MA, and so on. I spent the year after my MA working at an inner city church called Scum of the Earth, and loved it, but I also was able to research for Craig and adjunct-teach a Greek class, and I realized I really did love and was called to teaching. So I tested that calling with PhD applications, and when my dream supervisor accepted me, my excuses for avoiding further study were wearing out, and off I went. God has been good and encouraged me each step of the way through the scholars who have crossed my path, and I am grateful and hope to be an encourager to others in the future.

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

My main focus of research has been in the Epistle of James. I began it in my MA, writing a thesis on understanding “Wisdom” in James in 2003. Now, in 2015, I’m more excited than ever in helping people understand how to read this epistle, as I think rightly understanding it calls people into a vibrant, life-giving, exciting Christian life and discipleship. The vision it casts gets me excited every time I get to talk about it! I do, however, also have to spend a fair bit of time debunking wrong readings (no, it’s not about how much faith you have, but rather the quality of being single-minded in devotion to God that matters….), but even that is exciting because I get to see people set free from misunderstandings that have trapped them and weighed them down — well, what’s not to love about that? Right there is what I hope my work will contribute: freeing people through my teaching and writing to live lives wholeheartedly devoted to God in love and hope and forgiveness.

On the other hand, I have been hired to teach the Pauline epistles, and I am also expanding to the entire Catholic Epistles corpus, and I have recently found myself captured by Jude. I think I might just be captured by Jesus’ family, as there’s a strong correlation between Mary’s Magnificat and what James and Jude have to say about reality – in echo of their brother Jesus!

I’m also working currently (well, I will be if I can carve out the time from the writing projects I keep distracting myself with!) on a book for Zondervan on a Biblical Theology of Social Justice. My interest stems jointly from my time at Scum and my work in James, but I hear that term tossed around so often with such varied content attached to it that I’m a bit concerned that we’re emptying the idea of justice of any content. My hope there is to, unsurprisingly, point people back to the character of our just and merciful God as our model of who we, as his people, ought to be.

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

Probably the strongest influences are my two New Testament supervisors. First was Craig Blomberg, who introduced me to the field and encouraged me in it. He was influential in showing me a scholar who lived his convictions (see his work on wealth and poverty and how he lives), but also in his creative way of opening doors for inquiring younger scholars and inviting me to write with him. That experience has probably opened more opportunities than I could list, but even more is the way he would introduce me personally to people. He has been a consistent friend and moreso than I deserve, and one I hope to emulate in many ways for my students.

Then also Richard Bauckham, my PhD supervisor, has shaped my scholarship in ways I am just coming to realize. One of his biggest questions was always, “but where are you finding this in the text,” always driving me back into the text to make sure I wasn’t just running down rabbit trails that I wanted to create but was actually following the logic of the text (and its author). He is another scholar who truly lives what he studies (see his work on ecology, but also his warning in his James commentary that scholars not fall prey to studying James but never put it into practice!) And Richard also encouraged me at a key point in my dissertation process when I felt like I’d wasted time, when I wrote something for the church, that I must never feel ashamed of writing for the laity and pastoral level if I felt that was my calling. Coming to Regent, where our focus is the laity – but teaching them at a high level – I have been vastly encouraged by his words. I may never be an academic’s academic, but I do hope to do faithful scholarship for the sake of the church, something Richard helped me discern.

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

Hermeneutics and the Spirit. How we understand the work of reading the text, and how we teach that to the laity in our churches, concerns me greatly. So often I feel grieved by the shallowness of the Christianity we present to people in our churches, as though they are incapable of more. Women don’t need more craft retreats with feel good teaching, they need the meat of the Word to carry them through hard decisions, times of grief, and child-raising (or singleness-living). The church won’t be able to navigate modern culture if we continue to feed it only a vague, feel-good, baptized Disney version of hope: “be nice and good things will happen!” “If you pray, God will give you your prince charming, you deserve it!” What happens when bad things compound on bad? Or Prince Charming never shows up? Too often I watch people manufacturing their happiness or giving up on Christianity altogether because reality isn’t matching up with what they’ve been taught. By presenting a bible-verse memorizing kind of Christianity, too many people don’t know the whole scope of the drama of redemption, don’t know the narrative into which they’ve been carried, and it creates massive problems culturally, spiritually, and personally. Teaching people well how to read their whole text and understand it fairly in its context, and then to allow the Spirit to actually work in their lives could be transformative for Christians worldwide. The fairly forgotten member of the trinity, Paul claims that the same power that raised Christ from the dead is at work at us — and yet we often are content to live small lives… I don’t get it.

Why study the scriptures/biblical text?

I’ve probably been answering this right along. Because knowing it, knowing the whole drama, it changes everything. Knowing what is actually said in the text rather than what we think the text says changes everything. Knowing the text in its cultural context can break us out of our personal and cultural narcissism. It opens the power of the Spirit in our lives. It shapes our egos to cruciformity. It opens our eyes and shuts our mouths. It’s not dead and esoteric; it’s alive and transformative.

What do you like to do for fun?

Phew, an easier question! Depends on the season: during summer I love to hike and backpack — ideally camping far from the crowds! One of my favorite trips in the last few years was a canoe trip up a less-congested lake and there was no one there during the nights, just us and the stars. (Yes, I’m a bit of an introvert.) I also enjoy making freezer jams to save some summer flavors for the winter. And this summer I have expanded my garden, with mixed results thanks to aphids and ants and travel, but I have high hopes that I will continue to get better at providing homegrown food for those in my life. During winter I love to ski, although an intense fear of heights means that I remain a mediocre skier!

Also, since moving to Vancouver, I got into pottery which due to work I have had to drop, but I hope to resume when I’m no longer creating every course from scratch! And usually I would also say I love to travel, but having just finished 6 weeks of travel – staying nowhere more than 4 nights – I’m a bit tired of that for the moment!

A bit of art, a bit of nature, and a bit of music, and I am one happy woman!

Anything else you would like to share?

I’ve been fortunate to have found supportive people who encouraged me to follow God’s calling, and I don’t feel that I carry baggage from the lack of women in the field. I do know, however, that many of my students struggle with the lack of role models. I don’t know what to say other than, if God is calling you, go for it. Nothing will change if women keep waiting for enough other women to make it “safe” for them! It isn’t necessarily easy to be a woman in the field, but, hey, bathroom lines are often much shorter than the men’s at conferences! 😉

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