Dr. Cyndi Parker teaches 3-week intensive courses in Israel at Jerusalem University College, as well as by invitation to various churches and institutions. She holds a BA in French and Business Studies from Butler University, MA in Old Testament and MA in Religion from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Ph.D. in Theological and Religious Studies from the University of Gloucestershire.
How did you decide to become a biblical scholar? Share your autobiographical journey.
I became a biblical scholar a little reluctantly. I know that sounds weird, but growing up, I felt like I had been badly wounded by people in the Church who demeaned intelligent and self-motivated females. When I went to college, my professors talked about the silliness of believing in religion, and since I wanted to be brilliant, well spoken, and intelligent, I believed them. I was introduced to feminist ideas, which ultimately helped me put words around some of the deep hurt created by male leadership in church. I walked away from religion, from the church, and from God, and it was only through the patient, consistent pull of God that I eventually returned.
When I considered pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology, a trusted advisor of mine stepped in and stated that he thought I should consider biblical studies instead. Although I initially resented the suggestion, I quickly realized he was right. My biggest life questions, my biggest anxiety, and yet my biggest source of hope came from theology. I knew I needed to be in biblical studies even if it was only to be the female example in the church that I never had. I pursued graduate work in the Old Testament because I related to the life struggles and the difficult questions posed by people in the Old Testament.
I went to Israel to study for my final year of seminary, and that year of studying the land transformed how I read the Bible (and how I would shape my future career!). I realized how many unrecognized assumptions I brought to the biblical text simply because I mentally filled in the cultural and physical context as I studied the Bible. I learned that just as we ask new acquaintances “where are you from?” when we meet them, I needed to be asking “where are you from?” of the biblical text. Only when I saw and experienced the land of the Bible did I recognize how powerful physical place can be in the life of its inhabitants. The unique shape of the land with its natural resources, climate, and horizon lines presents unique challenges and opportunities for people, and knowing such information helps us better understand the biblical text.
Now I get to teach about the Bible in the places where biblical events took place. I watch as my students learn to pay attention to their physical surroundings, and I get to encourage them to discover the physical reality that inspired the biblical authors. I help pastors and church lay leaders use such unusual information to better educate their own audience, and I can finally say that I am happy being a biblical scholar!
Tell us about your work (past and current). What are you most excited about right now? What do you hope your work will contribute?
I studied Historical Geography of the Land of the Bible in Israel, and I have been teaching on that subject for over nine years. I love experiential learning, so when I can coerce students to hike throughout the land of the Bible with me every day for three weeks, analysing natural resources and connections to other communities, and then reading the biblical text on site, I am excited by how powerful and stimulating such an experience can be for people of all ages. I watch as my students realize the Bible is not just a black and white source of theological ideas but is an historical record of a long drama about God’s involvement in the messiness of human life. Their renewed fascination with the Bible and with the infinitely complex character of God feeds my desire to continue my work. In addition to teaching, I am also working on three journal articles for Logos’ upcoming Geography Commentary on the Gospels, as well as two books. One deals with reading the Bible through a geographical lens and the other is the historical, geographical, religious, and cultural context of the Gospels.
Recently I have become interested in Food Justice and how churches can use food production to invest in their local community. Before becoming a biblical scholar I was a chef. I never lost my interest in growing and creating yummy food, but now my interests have broadened to include questions related to how a biblical view of place can be applied to modern life. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Deuteronomy’s perspective of constructing a healthy “Place,” with humans interacting well with each other, with nature, and with God. Many of these Deuteronomic concepts can be translated to modern life. Combing my love for food with the biblical view of place has the potential to impact modern problems of urban food deserts and childhood hunger. Recently, I have become interested in the proven behavioral benefits and decreased recidivism rates of prisoners who are connected to agricultural programs. Not only do prisoners learn work ethic, patient care for vulnerable objects, and the pleasure of eating quality food that is a product of their labor, but also they learn the parallels between “inner” and “outer” gardens. The experiential education of getting their hands dirty in a real garden translates easily into the work necessary to invest in their spiritual lives. Good seed and proper care produces good fruit.
I hope my work challenges students and future leaders of the global Church to pay attention to the physical context of the Bible as an additional tool for biblical interpretation. I also hope people learn how to invest in our present physical context in such a way as to have a powerful impact on local communities. I want to continue to learn from the innovative grass-roots organizations that are making dramatic headway in this area and to match their work with the theological ideas that will create a holistic picture of how the Church can impact the place where God has placed them.
Who has most influenced you as a scholar? Tells us a bit about it.
I have three people who come to mind for three very different reasons. The first is Dr. Gordon Hugenberger, pastor of Park Street Church in Boston. He was one of my professors when I was in graduate school. He stood in front of the classroom one evening and said, “We need more Ph.D.’s working in the church.” I immediately thought, “There is no way he is talking about me. I am heading straight for the academy and do not want to work with the Church.” I have thought about his words so many times since that night. I currently teach pastors and church lay leaders as much as I teach academic students, and I have realized the value of having scholars invest in the church. I find it challenging and exciting to invest in bridging the gap between the academy and the church. There is a noticeable thirst for such knowledge. People who have not made a career out of biblical studies still want to be informed about complexities of the geography, history, literature, and culture of the biblical text. I often think about how correct Gordon Hugenburger was the night he challenged all of us to pursue Ph.D.’s and then use the degree for the benefit of the church. Instead of shying away from this challenge, I now embrace this challenge.
The second person to come to mind is Dr. Carol Kaminski. She was the first female Old Testament professor I had, and she became a model for me of what I wanted to do. She held a balance in class between strong academic work and honest, personal reflection on how she was being challenged by the biblical text. At a time for me when the Bible was becoming the object of academic work more than a source of life wisdom, Carol exemplified a woman who was able to study the Bible and be challenged by its life’s wisdom.
The third person is Dr. Sandy Richter. I came to know Sandy through my work in Jerusalem. I have never been a student of Sandy’s, but, nonetheless, she has always created space in her schedule to have coffee with me and give me advice on whatever issues I bring before her. She introduced me to Dr. Gordon McConville, who ended up being the best Ph.D. advisor I could have asked for. Sandy has given me advice on my CV, and she helps me network and figure out how to navigate the academic world. Aside from the practical ways Sandy helps me, I also admire how she purposefully engages both the Church and the Academy. She publishes works that are applicable and admired by both audiences, and I find myself trying to follow in her footsteps.
What do you like to do for fun?
I love traveling, hiking, running, yoga, road trips, outdoor activities, and anything that feeds my addiction for adrenaline. I belong to a foodie family, so I adore anything that has to do with good food – growing, cooking, or eating. I get excited over ideas of making quality produce available to communities who do not have access to such awesomeness.
Learn more about Dr. Cyndi Parker and her work on her website: narrativeofplace.com