Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Alpha, beta, gamma delta … many people can recite at least part of the Greek alphabet. But a foundation in biblical languages that prepares students for ministry or scholarship requires knowing much more than a little grammar and syntax. At Duke Divinity School, biblical studies students can expect to learn something about the original languages of Hebrew or Greek, the history of interpretation, and the importance of context for attempting to understand a text.

Context includes what might be known about the time and place in which the Scripture was written or heard, and it also points the student of Scripture to examine the text, book, or genre in which a particular passage is located. For Brittany Wilson, assistant professor of New Testament, the importance of context also dictates that biblical studies students wrestle with their own particular context—their own time and place—when seeking to understand Scripture. “One of my goals in teaching is to help students become careful readers of texts,” Wilson said. “That means recognizing the importance of context, both in terms of the text’s historical context and the reader’s current context. For instance, we need to grapple with how Paul and others in antiquity viewed bodily resurrection when we read a text like 1 Corinthians 15, which discusses the resurrection of our bodies. Yet we also need to recognize that people today may read 1 Corinthians 15 differently, depending on how they feel about their own bodies. What does a resurrected body mean for those who are disabled? Can we assume that our notions of healing and perfected bodies are shared by everyone? Being a careful reader of text and context allows us to consider how Scripture is speaking to us today.”

Wilson’s own scholarly work demonstrates this careful attention to context, particularly in studying bodies in the New Testament. Her book Unmanly Men: Reconfigurations of Masculinity in Luke-Acts, examines the cultural mores of masculinity and compares them with four male characters in Luke-Acts, demonstrating that the New Testament texts subvert Greco-Roman masculine ideals and point instead toward different constructs of power and masculinity. A review in the Journal of Theological Studies said, “Unmanly Men is an ideal resource not only for a wide range of scholarly interests but for classroom use as well. ... [It] is accessible, well-organized, and comprehensive, knitting together historical criticism and textual criticism (really, all biblical critical methods) with current and complex gender theory.”

Her current research expands beyond scriptural depictions of masculinity to include the significance of bodies and embodiment in the New Testament. She teaches the course “New Testament Bodies,” and says that together she and her students have been exploring “the key role of bodies for Christian doctrine and practice. Crucifixion and resurrection, baptism and Eucharist—these all depend on embodiment.” Taking bodies seriously also affects how students understand Christ’s incarnation and the description of the church as the body of Christ.

The application of biblical studies and theology to the thinking and practice of the church matters a great deal to Wilson. “The church and the academy should work together in the formation of faith and practice,” she said. “What we do in the classroom affects Christianity on the ground, the real-life ministry situations confronting students.” Wilson, who is a John Wesley Fellow and active participant in the UMC, loves teaching in a divinity school for this reason. “I am continually impressed by Duke Divinity School students, their quality of character, and their desire to figure out how best to be faithful to their calling.”

And Wilson has had experience with students in a range of divinity school programs. She’s an alumna of Duke’s M.T.S. program and now serves as an advisor to M.T.S. students, as well as for those in the Th.M., Th.D., D.Min., and Ph.D. programs. She teaches a number of classes for M.Div. and M.T.S. students, and she also teaches the “Introduction to the New Testament” course for the M.A.C.P. “I love the M.A.C.P. students—they are always asking the practical, grounded questions in class,” she said. “Each cohort bonds during their one-week residency on campus, and then they meet weekly online to discuss the lectures and readings. They model an impressive sense of community with a desire to support each other throughout this academic experience and in their various ministry contexts.”

Wilson embodies the strengths of Duke Divinity School: serious scholarship, commitment to the church, and an ethos of fostering community. As she put it: “Faith seeking understanding—it’s part of what makes Duke Divinity School a special place.”

Read about Wilson’s next book project, for which she received a Louisville Institute sabbatical grant »

Learn more about the M.A.C.P. »