On Biblical Interpretation & The Importance of Questions: A Conversation With Wil Gafney
I’m excited to share this conversation with The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D., a biblical scholar, professor, and Episcopal priest whose approach to studying Biblical texts and talking about faith will surely resonate with many of you.
If you’re inspired by her words, then definitely check out her website. The front page has information about each of her books, several of which are referenced in our conversation below.
In your book Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, you define womanist midrash as “a set of interpretive practices, including translation, exegesis, and biblical interpretation, that attends to marginalized characters in biblical narratives, especially women and girls, intentionally including and centering on non-Israelite peoples and enslaved persons.”
Would you mind talking a little about how this kind of biblical focus can help us both individually and collectively?
For entirety of the history of biblical interpretation until the last fifty years with very few exceptions there had been the presumption and expectation that white and male biblical exegesis (critical interpretation) was normative and beneficial for all readers and hearers.
Womanism is a richer, deeper, liberative paradigm; a social, cultural, and political space and theological matrix with the experiences and multiple identities of black women at the center. As with all readings from the margins, womanist biblical interpretation enriches all readers from any perspective and transcend the interests and questions of those who most easily identify with black- and woman-centered approaches to biblical interpretation.
I love how you use the term “sanctified imagination” to define the practice of reading in between the lines of the Bible. What are some ways in which parents might nurture a sanctified imagination in themselves and their kids? How would you describe the relationship between sanctified imagination and spirituality?
The sanctified imagination is a practice and nomenclature specific to black preaching. It is not a generic term. Parents who wish to nurture the imaginations of their children would do well to encourage their questions about the biblical text without rushing to provide “answers.” Give them permission to hold their own opinions and be honest when unsettled by a text or its claims.
Lots of young adults leave their inherited religion behind because it doesn’t feel authentic, relevant, or helpful. As a priest, what are some family and/or church practices you’ve observed that help kids explore their innate spirituality in a way that enriches their lives to the point that they carry these practices—in one form or another—into their adult years?
It’s really important for folk of all ages to have spaces where they can ask questions and have those questions honored and respected, and sometimes left hanging. It’s important for congregants and students to hear that clergy and faculty have our own questions with which we wrestle. It’s also important to introduce folk to biblical criticism early, to demonstrate the seriousness with which we take the complexity of the text.
You were an editor of The People’s Companion to the Bible, which helps readers explore how the culture(s) of the biblical writers affected the way the Bible was written and how our culture affects the way we read the Bible today.
Can you share some practical ways that we can make ourselves and our kids better aware of the biases we bring to the table when reading the Bible?
The People’s Companion to the Bible has a set of self-inventory questions that do just that.
[Editor's note: With permission from Dr. Gafney, here are a few questions from this excellent self-inventory.]
If you identify yourself now with a particular religious community, how would you describe the way the Bible is understood and read (if it is) in that community? What is the cultural or racial makeup of your religious community? Is a diversity of people an important value in your religious community? Does this affect the way the Bible is understood?
Even if you do not think of yourself as very political, how does your being not political influence the way you read or hear the Bible? How about the religious community with which you identify (if any): Does that community claim to be "not political"? How does that influence the way the Bible is read or heard in that community?
Are there particular individuals who are professionally trained and professionally involved in interpreting the Bible—clergy or professors of biblical studies or religion, for example—who have had an important influence on your thinking? How do they regard the Bible; how does their perception influence the way you read or hear the Bible? Do you perceive a difference between important leaders in your life and scholars of the Bible? How do you relate to that difference?
What gives you hope for the future of Christianity? Are there particular people, movements, or ideas that inspire you?
People making affirmative decisions about their own faith, leaving spaces that have not nourished them and sometimes forming their own encourage me, whether it’s the exvangelical movement(s), or folk (re)discovering Anglican and Orthodox liturgies, or churches embracing the full humanity and sexual and gender complexity of human persons—all of these give me hope for the future.
The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the author of Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and of the Throne, a commentary on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel and co-editor of The Peoples’ Bible and The Peoples’ Companion to the Bible. She is an Episcopal priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and licensed in the Diocese of Fort Worth, and a former Army chaplain and congregational pastor in the AME Zion Church. A former member of the Dorshei Derekh Reconstructionist Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia, she has co-taught courses with and for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary in Wyncote, PA.