The following excerpts are from I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (2015). Dr. Beverly Roberts Gaventa is Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Baylor University. Her chapter in the book is entitled “A Word of Gratitude.”
Where does the story begin, the story of my vocation as a student and teacher of the Bible? Perhaps it begins when I was nine, when we moved to a house within walking distance of the public library . . . or perhaps it dates from that same year, with the traumatic loss of my beloved maternal grandmother . . . but what stands out in my memory is a class on Paul’s letter to the Romans at Union Theological Seminary in New York during the second semester of 1970-71. I applied for and entered the MDiv program to use it as a platform for making my way into doctoral work in Reformation studies or perhaps theology and literature, but the MDiv required courses in Bible, much to my dismay, as I was sure that my scholarly interests lay elsewhere. To make the best of this requirement, I selected a course on Romans, knowing (however vaguely) its importance for the history of Christian thought. And that was it. Like tee-totaling Liza Hamilton in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, who is never again entirely sober after her doctor orders a sip of whiskey at bedtime, I never walked away (pp. 83-84).
Early in my career at Phillips University, I was introduced to the questions of historical criticism. I vaguely recall late night chats in the dorm about the implications of historical criticism for faith, but for the most part I found the invitation to think carefully and, yes, critically about biblical texts to be invigorating, even liberating. I had no way of understanding at the time how much that gentle passage into historical criticism depended on my professors. They did not coddle the faith I had received by stepping around hard questions, but they also did not try to destroy it with vigorous assaults. Instead, they invited me (invited all of us) into the world of critical reflection and appreciation . . . My introduction to critical study of religion was entirely a positive development, but I nevertheless graduated from college thinking that the church was well past its sell-by date. This was the beginning of the 1970s, after all, and everything was in crisis. In the midst of earnest conversations about whether any of us would live to be as old as thirty (sic!), no one expected much of any institution. That skepticism pervaded Union Theological Seminary as well, where many people assumed that the local church was headed for extinction. Yet there were other voices at Union too, formidable witnesses to the vitality of the Christian faith. In addition to the formative influence of Lou Martyn, Union introduced me to Raymond Brown, whose commitment to the church was as impressive as his grasp of the New Testament and its environment. Other significant influences from those years include Paul Lehmann’s lectures on Christology, Rubem Alves’ poetic introduction to the prosaic questions of the sociology of knowledge, and a series of Advent sermons by Edmund Steimle. And no account of Union Seminary would be honest or complete without reference to Marcia Weinstein, whose intermediate and advanced Greek instruction made up for the limitations of my undergraduate training (pp. 86-87).
If I have not found my scholarly work to be undermining of my faith, I have sometimes wondered about the cost and contribution of the scholarly enterprise. Being a scholar means that everything is filtered through a single lens. Each individual scholar is a bit like a character in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, each with our own book to recite and understand and interpret . . . The cost of scholarly work seemed especially high as I made the transition to parenthood, which is another form of obsession. When I was at my desk I wanted to be with my infant son, and when I was with him, I wanted to be at my desk. But those are the challenges for all who combine a strong vocation with parenthood, another strong vocation. (The irony of that difficult transition is that being a mother also has shaped some of the research that I now see as the most significant, namely, my book on Mary and my work on the maternal imagery of Paul) (pp. 88).
The whole chapter is well worth reading. Check it out in the collection of essays I (Still) Believe.