An Interview with Ellen Davis

We spoke via Zoom (as don’t we all, these days) with Dr. Ellen Davis in the days immediately following the Trumpist terrorist attack on the United States Capitol. Dr. Davis is Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. The author of eleven books and many articles, her research interests focus on how biblical interpretation bears on the life of faith communities and their response to urgent public issues, particularly the ecological crisis and interfaith relations. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2009), integrates biblical studies with a critique of industrial agriculture and food production. Her most recent books are Preaching the Luminous Word (Eerdmans, 2016), a collection of her sermons and essays, and Opening Israel’s Scriptures (Oxford, 2019), a comprehensive theological reading of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

Jason Myers: I’d love to begin by hearing what this last year that we have experienced has been like for you. How has COVID affected your life and thinking and writing and working?

Ellen Davis: It’s a good question. I’ll speak about my teaching and my day-to-day living, and then more of my emotional, cognitive, intellectual life as related to both. So, with respect to teaching…like everybody else, I cancelled a lot of trips the first week in March. I had meant to take my doctoral students to Jerusalem starting on March 6, the day the Palestinian Authority closed their borders, and that was that. I had put months of planning toward what promised to be a really stretching educational experience. Cancelling that and also  a second, summer trip to Jerusalem for a conference with a member of my family were the two biggest professional disappointments for me of this time. At least one of those was one of those things that had a particular moment and couldn’t be transferred to a later time, so I felt the loss acutely.

Apart from that, with respect to my teaching, I would say I have had minimal disruption, as little disruption as there could be under the circumstances. I learned new technical skills, which for me is a bit of an oxymoron. For the first couple of months, much of my anxiety, frankly, focused upon technology, even knowing that that was a very small thing, a kind of luxury anxiety to have in this crisis. But because it doesn’t come naturally to me, learning to feel more or less myself  as a teacher in this format was a big learning curve. However, I’ve been surprised and gratified to find that many of the benefits of classroom teaching have carried over.

Maybe this is the thing I’ve missed most: the “bonds of affection,” as we refer to them in the Anglican Communion, that develop when you’re in the same room. You just pick up on things when you’re breathing the same air—exactly what we can’t do now. The connections are not absent, but they are not fed in as many ways, and so I’ve felt that.

With respect to my living situation, the most important thing to say is that my husband is in a very high-risk category by reason of age. Thank God he has been safe and on Friday he had the first vaccine so, truly, thanks be to God. That was for the first month a source of considerable anxiety to me, when we didn’t even know how it was transmitted, and we were afraid of everything, including the telephone bill.

He has essentially not left the property – it’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much—since March and so I have more responsibility at home and have been grateful to be at a point in my teaching when I can step back from some things in order to do some others. And we have given more attention to end-of-life things—that we may not die “suddenly and unprepared,” as the Great Litany says. That was already in our minds before COVID; we had had our wills revised but hadn’t quite finished.

I would say that emotionally it’s been easier for me than for many people because my husband and I are both introverts. We don’t get bored, and isolation is not something that we feel keenly.

I’ve been really encouraged by how many people have contacted me for new work because they wanted to hear what wisdom Scripture had to bring to bear in this situation. I’ve been very busy because, while I have traveled less, I have not spoken less. In extremis, as we now are as a culture, people really do care about biblical wisdom. As part of that, I have been encouraged that a number of evangelicals have reached out to me wanting deep, multifaceted biblical interpretation, not particularly with respect to COVID, but rather with respect to the challenges of our time in general. I’m at a point in my own life where perhaps the one thing I would like to do while I still have a public voice is to play a meaningful role in biblical interpretation in the evangelical world. I get invitations now to do so, whereas five years ago I didn’t get such invitations, so I am hopeful that the Spirit is moving.

JM: What do you think prompted the invitations to emerge in the last five years?

ED: I think it’s largely the new generation of scholars and others who comprise the new generation of evangelical intellectuals and teachers. To give an extreme example, but a real one, they are realizing that driving an SUV because Jesus is going to come and burn the whole place up is probably inconsistent with the gospel. On this and other issues, they are looking for new voices, more nuanced and more interesting ways of reading Scripture.

I recently spoke as part of a panel to an audience of evangelical scholars on the Song of Songs; the other panelists were evangelicals in the technical sense. A younger scholar who had organized the panel said, “We invited Ellen Davis because when we read her, we get excited about being biblical scholars. Would the other panelists tell us what excites you about being biblical scholars?” I took it from that question that she didn’t think it was sufficiently obvious.

I have felt for some time that because I do pretty straightforward biblical exegesis, evangelicals should take me seriously. And as I say, that appears to be the case. I have a cousin at Liberty University who told me, “Your books are all in our library.” I would have assumed that they wouldn’t be there, but they are. I take that as good news.

A very highly placed Evangelical leader contacted me recently because he had found an essay I wrote probably 10 years ago for The Anglican Theological Review about sexuality. It basically says this is an issue on which Christians should recognize that there’s room for disagreement in good faith. It’s probably an issue on which we are bound to disagree and so we have to learn to live with it, without reviling each other. For many if not most of my students at Duke that is not adequate now; they want a more clear-cut “prophetic” stance. But through years of teaching with and among East African Christians, I am convinced that we need to have Christian community strong enough to withstand and, please God, work through very significant disagreements.

Tangentially related to this, I’ll make one other comment about this time and its importance to me personally: I think I’ve discovered what it means for me to love my country. I’ve sometimes wondered if I knew, because I’m a child of the 60s; I was at UC Berkeley in the 60s, and worked in the antiwar movement. I’ve never worked in military or government, so I’ve sometimes wondered, what does it mean for me to love my country? I didn’t know what the proof looked like in my life, but this year I have discovered how much I do care about a viable political system and the unity of our nation, without idealizing any of that. This is an issue not only in my professional life but also within my own family, and in both spheres I expect it will take time to figure out, What does it mean to maintain genuine unity and real relationships in the face of profound disagreements?

JM: What’s the last thing that surprised you in your reading life?

ED: I don’t think surprise is quite the right word. What is opening new ways of thinking, might be a question I can answer in a more satisfactory way. The book I am working on now is with the painter Makoto Fujimura. We did some lectures together at Fuller Seminary, probably 8 or 10 years ago. His painting style is a kind of innovative contemporary version of traditional nihonga Japanese brush painting; he begins by grinding precious minerals. We took an interest in each other’s work and discovered we share an agrarian sensibility, a sense of connection to the earth through our work. Then a few years ago we started working together on interpreting the Psalms through painting and other arts. So I’ve been reading Mako’s theological work, and it’s taking me into an aesthetic that is new to me.

Even though I grew up on the Pacific Rim, in the San Francisco Bay Area, and have had Japanese and Japanese American friends all my life, I’m relatively ignorant of Japanese culture.   Now that I’m reading more, this is the surprise: seeing how Christianity is a deeply submerged undercurrent within Japanese culture. That’s really been fascinating to me, and it is part of the new angle that our shared work is providing for looking at the psalms. We are discovering that each of us is, in a sense, bicultural. My other nearly lifelong culture is the culture of the Levant in the Iron Age and beyond, the biblical world. And he is bicultural between Japan and the US. Reading the texts together has been enriching; neither of us can anticipate what the other one is going to think or ask.

JM: Is he familiar with Hebrew, or is he relying on others for translations?

ED: No. He is painting his way through the psalms, and so he tells me what psalm he’s going to work on next, and I translate it.

One of his fellows, a theology and arts student at Fuller Seminary, does a spoken-word version of my translation, and Mako listens to that as he prepares. He is painting these pieces with sumi ink—essentially cakes of ashes that are 400 years old.His morning begins by taking these 400-year-old ashes and mixing them with water so that they are ready to be put on the surface of the linen. This is slow art with very deep roots in history.

I have always said that I work slowly, and that’s been a point of connection for me with the agrarian writers. Wendell Berry writes much more quickly than I, but his ethos is fundamentally opposed to speed. In a different way that’s true of my work with Mako, and that suits me very well. We are both working rather hard on our projects, but still there’s something deeply relaxing about just taking it one psalm at a time.

JM: Is there a psalm that has been especially challenging for you? What are you seeking when you work on a new translation?

ED: Partly something that’s going to sound good to the ear. How will they sound to Mako as he works on his paintings, and how will they sound when sung or read in Duke Chapel?

Finding the right level of consistency is a challenge. It doesn’t work to translate the same word the same way at every place, but you don’t want a hodgepodge. And then there are certain words that are not readily translatable, and so what do you do with them?

For example, the word hesed is traditionally translated “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness,” but those renderings may be sentimentalizing. A number of contemporary translations settle for “mercy” or “kindness,” but those are imprecise. So right now I’m working with “covenant-love.” Is that clunky? I’m not sure The hardest decision involves  the divine name. “Lord” is acceptable, but there are obvious problems. Pronouncing the divine name is not an option, and so how are you going to render that? I am still debating this; stay tuned.

JM: In your conversation with Krista Tippett, you said anything that compels us to slow down is an invitation and possibly a calling from God. Gardening is certainly one thing that compels us to slow down and I am curious to hear about your garden, what you might be growing if you keep a winter garden in Durham. Tell us about your land.

ED: Well, it depends what you mean by garden. I do not have a vegetable garden When we moved into this house 20 years ago it was part of a new development and they cut down a lot of trees. We kept all the trees we could and planted more, and they have all thrived, so we now have a total shade garden. It seems to us that in the time of global warming you don’t cut down trees pretty much on principle, if you can avoid it, but that means there is no food for humans grown in our garden. There is lots of food for birds and insects, and we have some blueberries and blackberries, but the birds get to them before we do, and that’s fine. Overall, our yard is what I would call lightly managed wilderness; I often think of myself as a woodsman here. Most of our plants are either native plants or plants that naturalize easily. One of my friends said, it looks like God planted it; it’s an attractive mishmash.

You asked me about “my land.” I define my land as wherever I am physically. And that comes probably partly from the fact that I’ve moved so much. We’ve lived here 20 years, but that is far longer than I have lived anyplace else in my life. It’s also by virtue of the fact that I don’t drive a car, so I walk a lot. Yes, my land is this piece of ground on which our house is built, and we try to take good care of it. But equally I would identify the two miles between my house and my office as “my land”; it’s a remnant of  North Carolina Forest.

JM: In Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, you note that the first creation account in Genesis “bespeaks a poet’s alertness to the world.” I would love to hear what poets you’ve been reading lately.

ED: Well, one poet that I have returned to over the last year and a half, to my surprise, is John Donne, although I’ve been focusing on his sermons more than his poetry. Donne believed he was called to holy orders not because of the moral character of his life, which was patchy, but because he was a poet, and the Holy Spirit is a poet. I began with Donne’s sermon series on Psalm 38 (a lament), and I’ve also been reading Theodore Roethke and Mary Oliver, along with the Psalms. A voice new to me, as a result of a Christmas present this year, is Brian Doyle, the Roman Catholic poet. They’re good interlocutors with the psalms.

JM: Eating is an important subject in your work. I wonder if you think of that as another practice, in addition to the reading of scripture and poetry, that can make us alert to the world. You write that eating is the primary occasion for knowing the work of the holy. Could you talk a little about this?

ED: I have the advantage or disadvantage of having a lot of dietary sensitivities. Only one of them, a peanut allergy, is genuinely dangerous, but having stringent dietary limits (as does my husband) means I am conscious of what we are eating on a daily basis. I would say that probably most of my daily exercise of an agrarian sensibility is in the kitchen. During this time when we have so few sources of external stimulation, one of the few things that I can do for my husband and for myself is to make good food with the limited ingredients we can use. And there is something about that that feels right, realistic. After all, most people in the history of the world have eaten from a relatively small list of ingredients, and that is probably true in the majority of the world today.

JM: What’s giving you hope right now about theological education and what might be of concern to you? What about faith communities and their response to the climate crisis and other ecological concerns.

ED: With respect to theological education, I am very fortunate—and I know how rare this is—to teach at a place that I still believe in. I’m thrilled to be at Duke, which keeps rethinking theological education. My dean, my colleagues, my students—we are all asking, What’s crucial? My master’s and doctoral students are doing significantly different things than their counterparts were doing 20-30 years ago. All of that encourages me to think that theology and biblical studies are changing and adapting and opening to new possibilities.

In terms of how faith communities are responding to the climate crisis and other ecological concerns, I remember that 30 years ago, when I first started working on this, people didn’t really see it as a theological concern. That couldn’t be more different now. I was speaking last night to a group of people at a local Episcopal parish here, and they’re concerned about economic issues, about the racial wealth gap. They decided they wanted to study the history of the piece of land on which the church is built, and they asked to begin by having a conversation with me, so they could frame their study of the land theologically. Another example: this summer, I was meant to speak at the Festival of Homiletics, which had a focus on ecological concerns and how they relate to faith. When they invited me, they said there would be two or three thousand people in attendance. But because we went online, 15,000 people took part. This was shortly after George Floyd’s murder, and so the conference was about racial crisis at least as much as it was about climate crisis. The conversation was sobering, of course, but also exceedingly encouraging, because thinking shifts when that many religious leaders are talking about the same things.

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