We all have good habits and bad habits, and good habits that can become bad habits when exaggerated in a crisis. Similarly, we all have good and bad spiritual habits, and good habits that can become bad habits.
A few things have happened to me in the past few months that have made me want to write something on the fact that seemingly very few Christians are reading the Bible and engaging in theological reflection, why this might be the case, and what we’re doing about it.
In doing this, I’m assuming that studying the Scriptures and engaging in theological reflection is a good thing for Christians to do. I wrote a bit about that a while ago in relation to charismatics here.
One of the things that got me thinking is that this year I processed the bulk of our applications for the coming year. That job normally falls to Matt as the Academic Dean, but as he was on sabbatical, I got to do it. I loved it, actually—reading through the reasons that people want to put their time, money, and effort into studying theology—getting to read some of their stories and some of their hopes and fears—while all the time knowing what’s ahead of them when they arrive and knowing that they’re going to love it!
The two words that stood out more than any other in the applications were “hunger” and “depth.” People are hungry, and they want something of substance to be “eating”. I’m assuming that all the people starting at the other theological colleges this September have written similar things.
The second thing that happened was that I spoke at New Wine, giving the main Bible talks. I thought it was brave of Paul Harcourt and his team to ask me. I’m not well known and I’m mainly now an academic although I have been involved in church leadership for 30 years. I’ve heard hundreds of talks in my charismatic evangelical world and I know what people are accustomed to from that kind of mainstage presence. But as I was preparing for New Wine, I also knew that I wasn’t going to be able to follow any kind of ‘style’, and that I was just going to have to be myself.
What I did in the end was essentially to give six WTC-style lectures. Now I know for sure that I won’t have been everybody’s cup of tea, and I’ve learned over the years that most Christians in our circle here in the UK are too polite to say when they don’t like something. So most of us probably only get the positive feedback in the end. Nevertheless, I think that what I saw in the way that people fed back to me was that a lot of people had found doing Bible study and theology like that thought-provoking and rewarding. I have a joke with my friend, Lindsey Hall, about our lovely mutual friend Gavin D’Costa who turned to me once after an academic discussion and said, “Well that was thrilling!” So nerdy, but so true.
The third thing was that Tim Brearley from Bible Society asked me and my husband, Nick, if we would do a short video for them on why we thought people didn’t read the Bible and what we thought could be done about it. I think we must have talked with Tim for about three hours all in all for a 3-4 minute video! We were all fascinated by the topic and talked around loads of different themes. Tim asked us some great questions and got us thinking.
The fourth thing was Nick launching his Bible for Life website in a great new format – all based on eating a substantial multi-course meal of the Spirit! I realized how effective he is being in providing a resource that could enable this generation to engage with Scripture in ways that are fruitful, accessible, and interesting—at no cost apart from just putting the time in. His background as a good evangelical and a Navigator have been put to great use for something much more exciting than ticking off your quiet time every morning. After years of young men and women seeking him out to study the Bible with him, I’ve been encouraging him to write something on how to engage with Scripture. Look up Bible for Life and watch this space. https://bibleforlife.co.uk/
The last thing was something that has stayed with me since March. A great friend of mine, Tina Cooke, travelled to Winchester from London to hear my Lent Lectures, which meant a lot to me. I think the lectures were a bit too dense really and not as thrilling as they might have been. But Tina wrote me a beautiful email in response and included this. “I turned to my neighbour and said, ‘The thing is, you don’t realize how thirsty you are until someone puts a glass of water in front of you.’”
Hunger, thirst, depth. People are hungry – they want to be eating solid food. I know they are. And the Bible is a fascinating book. It is also food for the soul.
Food for the Soul
I don’t really know how this works, and I know that it is Jesus, the Word, who is the bread of life, but there is also something about the word of God in the Scriptures that feeds us. In Jeremiah we read, “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight…” (Jer 15:16). Jesus declares that “human beings shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt 4:4) The word of God is associated with food—it can fill our spiritual bellies if we are actually eating what is given us. It is nourishing, satisfying, nutritious, delicious.
So why are we not sitting down to eat?
The Bible is Unfamiliar
I think one of the reasons is that the Bible is unfamiliar and people don’t know where to start or how to make sense of a lot of what they read and so they give up. It’s a great legacy of the Reformation that we can have Bibles in our own language in our hands and on our phones, but I don’t think it helps us to think that the Bible is always just self-explanatory so we can all be left to it. The Bible needs to be taught and it’s a much more fascinating book if it is. I love hearing great Bible teachers telling me something about the context and the language that I didn’t know that brings the text to life.
The Bible is unfamiliar because it’s not read at home or in schools in the way that it would have been in the past. Church is now the only place where most people will encounter the Bible, so preachers and teachers need to take that responsibility seriously. For some reason, however, Bible teaching has gone out of fashion in evangelical charismatic churches. I don’t really understand this, but just from conversations I think there are a few things going on.
The first is that I think leaders have made assumptions about people in the congregation just getting on with it when they’re not. The second thing is that I’m unsure about whether leaders are immersed in the Scriptures. Put it this way, if they are, it’s not filtering through. The third is that I think there is a fear that in-depth teaching will be perceived to be boring, put people off, and they won’t come back.
Teaching or Inspiration?
Consequently, a lot of what we hear is a few verses from the Bible used as a springboard for a talk that is largely made up of stories, life wisdom, and maybe a few jokes. I love hearing testimonies and stories of what God is doing around the world, and it can be hugely inspirational, but it’s not teaching. The same can be said for interviews. I like people and I like hearing about what has motivated them in their lives, but it doesn’t serve the same purpose as teaching. Much of what we get at festivals and also in our local churches falls in these categories, which would be fine if we were also receiving good teaching, but I think we all know that for the most part, it’s become the main event.
The one thing that I have heard particularly in charismatic circles is the skill or gift to take a story from the Bible, work through it, and apply it to our lives today. I’ve heard some people do that brilliantly and prophetically. It strikes me that this is teaching, and I think it is a good thing.
Even so, just taking stories or working through themes as a practice for the preaching series can mean that communities never really engage with the whole of the Bible. Communities of believers should work through books (or the lectionary), so as to ensure that we’re engaging with the Scriptures on its own terms and not just ours. Let the Bible ask you hard questions and ask them right back. Get stuck into a good discussion about what something might mean, read a commentary or two, phone a friend, draft in a scholar.
I don’t know if this is true or not, but I think that the sloppy practices that we’ve got into is to do with an idea that we think people don’t want to sit through something that might be seen to be dry or overly academic. Is it because we’re so desperate for people to come in and stay that we think we need to make every talk entertaining? Or is it because we think that we’re dealing with a generation that can’t concentrate any more? I can promise you that anyone who can binge watch Netflix or play a video game for 24 hours non-stop has no problem concentrating. They’ll just concentrate on what they want to concentrate on. Like eating junk food.
Personally, I don’t think we need to pander to a fast-food culture, especially as I see so many people come alive when they’re taught the Bible by people who love it, believe it, and understand the power of it for knowing God and knowing ourselves. I think it’s about changing our cooking and eating habits.
Changing a Nation’s Eating Habits
For some while now I’ve been interested in Jamie Oliver and his mission to change the eating habits of whole nations. I love food and I love the effect of good food on people and I get what Oliver is doing. I think he’s right to want to start a “Food Revolution.” I recently watched his Ted Talk on this in the US. You can see his passion in this talk. I actually think there are things the church can learn from him, precisely because his mission is to change a nation’s eating habits, and it strikes me that this is the task before us with the Bible.
The two things he focuses on are education and producing delicious food. Teach people why good food matters, let them taste delicious food, and then teach them to cook nutritious, delicious food for themselves. A simple vision.
It’s fascinating watching his Ted Talk peppered with what I associate with prophetic language—the time is now, the time is ripe, people are ready for change. I feel the same about biblical literacy and theological education. People are hungry and bored, tired of eating food that leaves them sluggish, and ready for something more engaging. It will undoubtedly mean more work for everyone, but it will be so worth it.
So just to carry on with the food analogy a bit longer…
When you’ve become used to/addicted to fast food, you need to do some work to change your palate and your cooking and eating habits. It’s about changing your expectations of food: the buying, the preparation, the eating. Finding spiritual food requires more time than getting a sugar-hit or a salty, cheesy burger delivered to your door while you lie on the couch in your pj’s watching Netflix. We all might enjoy a sugar-hit or a burger moment, and we may have had the spiritual equivalents of these moments. But the general rule for eating spiritual food from the Bible is that it requires foraging, simmering, picking through bones, marinating, refrigerating, smoking. It’s food that will take time to bring out rich and deep flavours.
One of the things that Oliver disturbingly demonstrates is how milk is now served in American schools – it now has added sugar and flavours. So rather than just plain milk, children are being loaded up with pounds and pounds of sugar because someone somewhere decided that milk on its own was no longer appetizing. When does something served as “milk” cease to be nutritious and thus not really milk at all?
I’m one of 5 siblings and my mum in her day was a health freak. We had very little sugar at home, no white bread, no crisps etc. As a result, we loved eating fast-food. Whenever we could we binged on it. I used to swap my horrible home-made brown bread and cheddar cheese sandwiches with Clare Taylor who had white bread and Dairylea. Yum. That was primary school. The long-term result though is that in reality Mum taught us all how to cook good food and to love it. She passed on good eating habits.
I wasn’t nearly as conscientious with my kids (who all also love fast-food!). I did read about making kids eat a tiny bit of what they say they don’t like though, and I tried that because I didn’t want fussy kids. It totally works and eventually gives them the ability to eat what is put in front of them. A lesson on how eating habits can be formed over time.
Oliver has a simple formula: education, letting people taste delicious food, and teaching people to cook for themselves. The parallel for us is this: education (why Bible study/scholarship matters and why I should bother), letting them taste delicious food (making Bible study and theology as fascinating as it really is), and teaching people to cook (giving them skills for their own study).
Serving up proper meals and changing our cooking and eating habits will mean a fitter, more robust, more flexible, more resilient, long-lasting body that is the church. It’s totally within reach and I personally think, along with Jamie Oliver, that the time is ripe.
 This is linked to the idea of the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture that is inherent in the Scriptures themselves. This is a Protestant principle found in such texts as the Westminster Confession of Faith, although even there it is stated that ‘All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unti all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.’ (7.1) My italics. Scripture can lead a person to faith, learned or unlearned, but is not necessarily ‘plain’ in all things.
I remember very clearly, in my 30’s, realizing that I wanted to study theology at degree level. I had no idea that it would end with me doing a PhD, leading a college, writing books, and teaching. It hadn’t been a “career move”! I thought I was studying theology so that I’d be a better co-pastor with my husband and because I loved it. I also thought then that these were good enough reasons for all that study and investment, and I still think they are.
I recently attended a really enjoyable theology conference in LA. I listened to thought-provoking papers and presentations, met some interesting new people, gave a paper myself on a topic I love, and had some good conversations. I also attended a lunch hosted by Logia, a new initiative launched by the Logos Institute, ‘which seeks to support current female students and staff and encourage women to pursue divinity disciplines at the postgraduate level.’ ( http://logos.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/logia/ ) Forty-five women attended. I gather this number astonished and pleased the organizers.
As a result of attending the conference and the few things that happened afterwards, I felt prompted to write this post.
After I left LA I found I had some time to finish reading the thesis of my good friend, Rev Dr Kate Coleman, on the experiences of black Christian women in the UK. In it I read this, which I made a note of,
Mercy Amba Oduyoye concurs, “My experience is that it has always taken women to ensure the representation and voice of women, at least in the Church and other related bodies.” Audre Lorde stresses the importance of such a development: For it is not difference which immobilises us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.
Just as I finished Kate’s thesis, another female friend of mine (a NT scholar) posted an article of an interview with John Piper where he states very clearly his conviction that women should not teach men in seminary in preparation for ministry as, in his view, the Bible prohibits this. I read (skim-read to be honest) the article. As familiar as I am with the stance, it never ceases to appall me.
My first thought was I’m so glad that I have a contract with IVP Academic to write a book called Freedom to Lead. In this, I’ll explain why I (and so many others) think that the Bible does the opposite. I’m due to write this in the next few months.
Secondly, I felt beyond sad and frustrated. I’m always rendered momentarily speechless when I see opinions like that in print. I’m a theological educator and the principal of a non-denominational seminary style theological college (which specializes in spiritual formation for life, leadership, and ministry). I have had a teaching and preaching ministry in the church for over twenty years, and I’m a mother of four sons whom I, and my husband, have nurtured in the Christian faith.
So thirdly, everything coming in the space of a few days made me want to put my own something in print—something that I hope will strengthen the mettle of other women to pursue theological education at a higher level, to hang in there, and to become the women teachers, preachers, and leaders that the world and the church needs.
Women ensure the representation and voice of women
What women often do for one another is just to share their stories, and as we do, we give one another a sense of relief that ‘it’s not just me,’ which somehow helps us all out. Frances Young spoke about this in her paper in LA. Here is a bit of my story for those women who are thinking about going into academic theology.
I came in late to systematic theology at a post-grad level having studied for a bachelor’s degree in theology on my own in my 30s. I was in my 40s and have always only ever been a part-time theologian. I only studied theology to begin with because I wanted to be a better preacher and pastor. I studied, led a church with my husband, and managed a houseful of boys. Now I’m the principal of a college, I still lead a small church, and I do research and writing in any time I can get. I absolutely love theology.
When I started my MA in systematic theology, I noticed straight away that systematic theology is dominated by male voices. This baffled me slightly. It wasn’t until I began to realize the way that systematic theology is done at a higher level that it made more sense to me. That is not to say that the men I met were not respectful and encouraging to women—quite the opposite in my experience—just that the academic world is quite hard-hitting for anyone who ventures into the field. If you start under-confident, it’s going to be a greater challenge to stay in there.
In recent years, I have certainly found some women that I admire in the field and I’ve enjoyed reading and meeting some great female theologians. But a further realization dawned on me as I went on to do a PhD. There were so few evangelical (and even fewer evangelical charismatic) women in systematic theology. I discovered a similar pattern in NT. I cited John Piper above and I have my own thoughts as to why this is the case, but that is not for this post. Here, I’d like to address those women who have just launched out into academic theology or are maybe thinking about it, identify some of the hurdles that you might encounter, and encourage you to keep going or take some first steps if this is for you.
At MA level I made friends with a young woman ahead of me who encouraged me at an early stage at King’s to keep going with academic theology. She had finished her PhD and had just started teaching at King’s. I’m grateful for her encouragement and friendship. Apart from that I had no other women academics in my life, and certainly no female professors, and that went on for years. The rest of my encouragers and mentors were men. By and large, it was the men who ensured that I found a voice and I am greatly indebted to them.
Despite help and encouragement, it was never ‘easy.’ It was always very hard work, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. I don’t think it’s ever easy for anyone—male or female—but women have more to overcome.
Whenever I go from my normal day job and normal life into a full-on academic environment I experience the same pattern of thoughts and emotions which are something like this: It’s so great to be here…I absolutely love this stuff…Why on earth am I here?… What am I doing here? I’d so rather be at home…I’m so glad I came…I have no idea what the speaker is going on about…Everyone else is cleverer/more knowledgeable/more confident than I am…Wow, that was so interesting. I love that idea…How on earth do we make this real for people on the ground?…I’d love to ask x or x… No, that’ll sound stupid… I’m glad I didn’t…I wish I had…
I could go on, but you get the picture. I often used to feel sick, panicky, and tongue-tied in academic settings—not a state I ever got into anywhere else and very unusual for me. Thankfully, I no longer feel that, but it did last for a very long time. The most familiar feeling of all is my little friend, the imposter syndrome, who just creeps in and snuggles up. I’m so used to it now that it’s boring and my best bet is just to try and keep it quiet.
Now, in the fourteen years since I started my MA, I’ve had enough conversations with women to know that this is all normal. It’s not just me. There are things you get used to and need to accept, and things you need to fight against.
Here’s my advice to women considering going into academic theology, even if it’s only ever part-time.
Listen to those around you
If you have an ability for learning, writing, and teaching theology, and other people identify that in you, then consider pursuing a higher degree. Thankfully, you don’t decide on your own whether you are able to become an academic theologian. It’s in the hands of your teachers and mentors. If they are good and they are for you, and they encourage you to do it, then first of all, trust them! They are not setting you up to fail. They see potential in you and they know what they’re doing. In other words, don’t drown in your own under-confidence.
Learn to persevere
Even though it makes all the difference in the world, their confidence won’t actually become yours. You have to find your own. This may take years and years. You may have to fight through chronic feelings of inadequacy and stupidity, crippling fears, and all the anxiety that accompanies that, to get to the point where you really believe that you might have something to contribute after all. I know for sure that this can happen to men as well. It’s just worse for women.
(I really hope one day that this changes. I absolutely love seeing confident younger women just getting up and having a go. It’s delightful.)
Decide not to be intimidated
Find your level so that you’re happy with what you are able to do and say rather than trying to emulate someone who is just nothing like you. You have to find your own voice and learn not to be intimidated by those who are ‘better’ at this than you. If someone is playing a power game, you should probably just keep away from him or her. In general, however, most people don’t actually want to intimidate you. My advice is just get used to feeling ignorant and stupid. You will never know enough. Ask lots of questions and enjoy the fact that there is always more to learn. Apparently, Colin Gunton used to say that it takes twenty years to be formed as a systematic theologian. As a part-time one, that means I’ll arrive when I’m 80 years old!
Get used to picking yourself up
I know I’m going to sound like a charismatic here (no apologies), but don’t underestimate that there is a spiritual battle (however you understand that—I know what I mean by it) over women in theology and leadership. So pray, pray, pray, and get others to pray for you as you study. If you decide you want to do this, get used to feeling knocked—it will happen. If other people have put faith in you, pick yourself up, and carry on. This was one of the best pieces of advice I ever received.
Focus on God
Finally, focus on why you want to do it. I was inspired to do theology just through my own reading and then meeting other theologians who had a passion for their subject (learning and speaking about God) and a deep sense of privilege that we are able to serve the church. If I’m flagging, thinking why bother with academic theology (which I frequently think), I look at the Gospels again, get back in touch with Jesus, worship, re-read a great theologian, and thank God that I get to play a part.
There are powerful voices ranged against women who feel drawn to academic theology. They come from without and within. They don’t have to be the loudest ones. I hope, if you’re thinking of studying and it’s the right thing for you, that you have a champion, or a few, who will cheer you on, open doors for you, pray for you, and delight in your successes, however big or small.
Don’t for one second imagine it will be easy. It won’t. But it could quite well be the best and most rewarding thing you ever get to do. It certainly has been for me.
 Coleman, Kate Owusua, “Exploring Métissage: A Theological Anthropology of Black Women’s Subjectivities in Postcolonial Britain.” PhD Thesis, 2005.
 Oduyoye, Mercy Amba, “Reflections from a Third World Woman‟s Perspective: Women‟s Experience and Liberation Theologies,” in King, Ursula (ed.), Feminist Theology from the Third World: A Reader (London and Maryknoll, NY: SPCK/Orbis books, 1994), p.24.
 Lorde, Audre, Sister outsider: Essays and Speeches (New York: The Crossing Press, 1984), p.44.
So I get that the charismatic church is messy, and can be off putting. That’s why I love 1 Corinthians. Just when you think Paul should have just shut the crazy Corinthian charismaniacs down, he tells them to ‘Eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy’! He was brave. I take heart from that.