Episode 59: “Bringing the New Testament to Life” featuring Shively Smith


Episode 59: “Bringing the New Testament to Life” featuring Shively Smith

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How can you teach the New Testament in ways that make it come alive to modern people? In this episode we speak with New Testament Professor Shively Smith about innovative approaches to teaching the gospel that disrupt our staid and familiar notions of the biblical text.

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How can you teach the New Testament in ways that makes it come alive to modern people? New Testament Professor Shively Smith discusses innovative approaches to teaching the gospel that disrupt our staid and familiar notions of the biblical text.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe, the Director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is the Reverend Dr. Shively T. J. Smith, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Boston University School of Theology. Our focus for this podcast is teaching the New Testament. Shively, thank you for joining us today.

Shively Smith: Thank you so much for having me.

Doug Powe: I’ve been looking forward to this conversation because so many people and congregations, pastors, and other leaders really love teaching the New Testament but sometimes struggle. So, I just want to start off by asking you, what are some challenges that church leaders face in teaching Bible to modern audiences?

Shively Smith: I think one of the first challenges — that’s a really great question. I think one of the challenges that we have, I would say, is honoring the social and historical distance that we actually have from the New Testament — that we have when we’re teaching, preaching, engaging the New Testament, especially in our congregations because on some levels there’s a real sense of familiarity. We know what the Bible says. We know what the New Testament says. We know what Jesus said. What Paul said. But in fact, there should be a whole lot that we are actually puzzled by, that feels unfamiliar or strange, or even “other” to us about the text. And so, I think it’s really hard sometimes — disrupting the tradition and the culture of familiarity with the New Testament in order to make it come alive in new ways to our congregations.

Doug Powe: Thank you for that answer. And I think that you’re right. I remember one time doing a study, and it was actually sort of funny because, in the text, it talks about wise men. But of course, we’ve always said there are three wise men. But the text doesn’t actually say three wise men. But, you know, I had people arguing up and down. But I said “no, read the text.” And they were sort of floored that it actually did not say three wise men.

Shively Smith: Right. I mean, those are the things that we work with — this sort of familiarity where we assume certain details. Because, you know, in some ways you get that because of the Christmas pageants, right? You’re used to babies, picking three of them to be the wise men and three of them get to be angels. We’ve collapsed the entire Christmas story into one when, in fact, Matthew’s and Luke’s versions are different in what’s happening there. So, that’s a prime example of a place of being disruptive. Another place, if I could build off it, where I see it is in the conversations about Pharisees and Sadducees and how we talk about Judaism as a single, monolithic portrayal in the New Testament. And we miss that, in fact, we’re talking about different forms of Judaism and commitments being practiced. And so, in fact, the Sadducees and the Pharisees are two groups that don’t get along and actually don’t see eye-to-eye on real matters of how Judaism gets practiced. And then all of the sudden you hear about them in Matthew where they’re going out to visit John the Baptist. So, you have the Pharisees and the Sadducees going out together to see what John the Baptist is saying out there in the wilderness. We actually should be very shocked by that.

Doug Powe: Wow, that’s interesting. You’re right. I don’t think people often consider that that should be shocking. We just see it as natural that they would go together because we see both of them as antagonists to Jesus.

Shively Smith: Exactly. And not recognizing that, in fact, before they’re antagonists to Jesus or John the Baptist, they’re antagonists with one another. And so, this sort of speed of consensus that you see playing out actually should cause pause and open up an opportunity to help lead churches over what it means to engage in conflict management. Like there’s real opportunities when we slow down to identify our distance from that history, new ways of engaging the text in the life of the community.

Doug Powe: Just to build on that a little bit before we move on, can you share an idea or thought with the listeners for how they can distance themselves from the text a little bit? Because I think it’s so easy for us to read in our own lives, our own context, just naturally. So is there a way we can read it where we say, “Wait a minute. I should be thinking about this differently”?

Shively Smith: Yeah. That’s a really good question. One of the ways that I invite people to do this is to go back to the basics of primary school: Who? What? When? Where? Why? So, let’s stick with Matthew 3, on the Sadducees and the Pharisees and John the Baptist. Instead of immediately assuming that we know these figures, that we know what they’re about, what does it mean to pause and say, “No, who are the Sadducees?” and “Who are the Pharisees?” What do they believe? Why do they believe it? Do they believe the same thing? Where did they come from? What period are we talking about? We’re not talking about the 21st century. We’re talking about 2,000 years ago in a completely different geographical local. So, I say, one of the ways to do that is to go back to just those basic primary school questions and force ourselves to really answer them historically. Related to this is, I always say, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned map. It can seem like very low hanging fruit, very primary, but it can actually be very essential to look at the map and realize we are not talking about the United States or North America. I mean, the names are different. The geography and topography that we’re actually talking about are different. That’s a way to force us to reconsider with, “No, this is different. This is a different world. The visual of this world is different than they’re talking about. We’re even in a different local.”

Doug Powe: That’s very helpful, and that sets up our next question. Can you share some of the more innovative approaches to teaching scripture that you use or you’ve seen others use? You just shared a couple of ideas. Are there some others that can be used to be more innovative as you engage the text?

Shively Smith: Yeah. So, the who, what, when, where, why. The map. I want to also say, I do a lot of work putting the biblical text in conversation with media, particularly certain movies and images that are contemporary, that are familiar to us, and then images that are unfamiliar to us. I’ll use archeology. I’ll use from these sites and from these places, and then use film to get us to talk about different ways in which the religious rhetoric and conversation that’s occurring in the New Testament may or may not match up with the values we’re actually connecting with when we’re watching something as fun as movies. Like what are the assumptions that you grant when you’re watching movies that actually reflect what you think about — if we talk about it? I like to do a lot of work around calling. So, when you talk about calling — a vocation that may or may not actually be articulated in the biblical text — so I use that media to open the text in some ways, bring it close, and then distance it at the same time. And then get congregations talking about the different kinds of assumptions or even mental pictures and understandings that they’re working with that actually may rival each other. So, they have one particular way that they’re talking about what it means to be called People of God, or called community, koinonia fellowship, or believers when they’re talking about the Bible. But it actually looks totally different when you have them engage that in conversation with something like in the movie Beloved — the “Baby Suggs moment” where she’s doing a ring shout and calling the community together. They may be related. And then, they also may be distinct.

Doug Powe: That’s helpful, I think, and it allows for engaging the text in a different way. I think often, many congregations don’t take advantage of the media to do so. So, I know this is going to be a very challenging question for you, but what is your favorite passage to teach in the New Testament and why?

Shively Smith: It is a very challenging question. I have quite a few.

Doug Powe: I knew you would, but that’s why I said let’s narrow it down.

Shively Smith: Okay. You know, one of my go-to’s is probably Acts 15. So, Acts 15 is the great Jerusalem Council. So, this is where you get all the players, all the who’s who. So, you have Peter and Paul and James. You have messianic Pharisees — Pharisees that believe in this messianic claim that are part of the community. And they’re all trying to figure out — answer — a very fundamental, basic question. “Do you have to become Jewish in order to be a believer, to be considered followers of the Way?” And so, I love that chapter because it has all the who’s who. It allows us to really push against this larger history in the possibilities of sort of anti-semitic pieces, to really recognize that, in fact, these followers of the Way — the believers — are Jewish themselves. And so, what the question of including non-Jews into the community starts with is the question of proximity, relationship, embodiment of Judaism. I love it because it sets us up to think about other texts in the New Testament. I mean, you have Paul. You can think about the letters of Paul. You get to think about James, John. I mean, it’s just that this is the chapter where everyone is in the room together. Even the Spirit of God is in that space! You can go any number of places in discussions and explorations about the Biblical text.

Doug Powe: That’s one of my favorite texts also. And — in fact, it’s funny — I was just doing an event where I used that particular text. I’m curious. As you work with the text, and I’m sure you’ve done it several times, what is it that you are hoping people will walk away with as you approach the text? Or do you have, depending on how you’re setting it up, do you have a different insight you’re hoping individuals will take away?

Shively Smith: Specifically, when I’m approaching Acts 15 — is that it?

Doug Powe: Yes, Acts 15.

Shively Smith: Yeah, I think one of the big takeaways for me is again to be a bit disruptive with some of these simplistic narratives of Christianity and how it started, so to really use that as a space to talk about “who do you see and what did you know about them before?” And “what do you notice in terms of how they are portrayed and what they’re doing in this text?” So, in some ways, it’s to help to begin to nuance and make more complex this story of early Christianity. It also is to strike a certain degree of curiosity. People tend to see very quickly Paul and Peter in that. They miss the Pharisees. Or they’ll see the Pharisees in the group and then they’re confused about why they’re there. Right? They may miss that the real decision maker in fact is not Paul or Peter in that space, right? That you actually end up seeing that the person who makes the final decision — it actually isn’t even decision by committee — one person makes the decision and owns that decision, and that’s James.

Doug Powe: It’s James, that’s right.

Shively Smith: And so how does that change our understanding of who are the leaders at the time at this part of the story? I also think it’s helpful to engage in conversation, in interfaith conversations, particularly with Christianity and Judaism. And then to open it up. All of those are big takeaways for me. Big opportunities with this passage.

Doug Powe: I want to stick with the Bible but move to what part does preaching play in teaching the Bible more effectively? Many of our listeners may not know this but some will — that you’re also a fantastic preacher. So, you know, what part does preaching play in being able to teach the Bible more effectively?

Shively Smith: Yeah. One thing that I think is a real opportunity with preaching is — I think that preaching can move people by sparking curiosity. So how do we preach in a way that ignites in people a curiosity to go back and revisit a biblical passage and to see it from a different angle? And when I say different angle, I actually am very much committed to see different people, different experiences with this passage in a real way. So, I see preaching in many ways as a different rhetorical moment and yet with the same goal that I’m trying to achieve in class. Less about the “banking system” of depositing into students more information. And more about getting them curious to go and explore and ask more questions. To be courageous enough to ask more questions of our Biblical texts, of our interpretive products, and of our faith, and of ourselves. To me, that is the embodiment of what preaching can and should be doing right now, particularly as we’re turning to the Scriptures and resourcing it as a way to have conversations that our communities need.

Doug Powe: I really appreciate that answer because I think that too often, we do the “banking model,” as you call it, where we want to deposit with people something that they can take away. And not that takeaways are bad. But we really need to be careful that we’re not simply depositing in such a way that we’re creating lazy congregants. We really want them to be active and curious about what has taken place and then, as you say, wanting to go and engage more themselves. Because I think often what happens, people just show up Sunday after Sunday, just waiting for a deposit. And that’s the end of what takes place.

Shively Smith: Yeah, I think one of the ways we do that is to think about the preaching moment as not just a moment of declaration but a moment of questions. Again, what does it mean to pose questions and not just with a single answer but any range of possibilities for our communities to consider? The other piece I would really want to think about is, “what is the conversation between the preaching moment we’re having and say, for instance, our Bible studies and biblical engagement?” I think there are real opportunities to put the two into conversation with each other. Now, as a preacher, that requires a little bit of courage and humility. Because, you know, once you preach you may be a little bit reticent to invite people to talk with you about what they heard or what was unclear. But there is a way in which the preaching moment isn’t just our moment as preachers. This is really the congregation’s moment to hear the proclamation and then to engage it and allow it to make a demand on us, to think differently, to grow in our faith commitment and our community. And so that happens, I think, when preaching and the curiosity raising that we’re doing in that moment is complemented by actually sitting together and actually opening the text up to see what we really do see there.

Doug Powe: Yeah. I agree with you. The other challenge that I think many congregations face is with young people. So, when they do have young people, oftentimes the tendency is to dumb down the text. How do you think we should engage youth in teaching the biblical text?

Shively Smith: I think the question is “what do you see?” And this is very basic pedagogical question that I use all the time at all levels. So, even at that level, what does it mean to invite them to open the text up and ask “so what do you see? What words do you see? What people do you see? What actions do you see? What do you see that makes you curious or bothers you? What do you see that is unfamiliar to you or familiar to you? You could start with the biblical text or you could start with the world. What do you see in your classroom right now that excites you or that bothers you? Or looks like what we believe or challenges what we believe? I think that one of the biggest things that we have to do as leaders of the church resourcing the biblical text for these conversations is to start with the sight of the young adults, rather than our sight. And then to model for them what it means to put what they’re seeing in conversation with our Scripture, with our texts that we say are authoritative because they have resources for us to measure what we believe or what we do. We’re meant to consider it that way.

Doug Powe: I want to move to connecting to one of your favorite people, Howard Thurman. And as you know, Thurman because of his grandmother was not a fan of the Pauline letters because of the reference to slaves and masters. The same could be true of gender and talking about women: “stay in your place.” These texts that people have interpreted in particular ways can still be very challenging texts. How do you suggest leaders teach and deal with some of these challenging texts in a way that you don’t ignore them — because they’re there — but in a way that hopefully is helpful.

Shively Smith: You’ve actually just said one of my first points, which would be you don’t ignore them because they’re there. Probably, to nuance that a bit more, I would also say you don’t ignore the real interpretive histories of these texts. These texts are not just sitting in the New Testament static. They have had impact. They have had voice. They have had effect on communities, on bodies, on histories in a real way. So, I think one of the ways that leaders engage them is to name those interpretive histories and those problems, those difficulties, those conflicts that are there. And then actually, I am opposed to the idea of trying to explain it away. I really think there’s something powerful about saying, “Hey, these texts have been used to bring life. And they have been weaponized to take life. They’ve been used to affirm the humanity of some while denouncing the humanity of others. And what does it mean to use that interpretive history as an invitation to help people get a better sense of our history?” I mean that’s part of it. All the research talks about the growing degree of biblical illiteracy in our congregations. But I always like to say that there’s also a huge degree that we are illiterate about our own histories.

Doug Powe: Yeah. That’s true.

Shively Smith: So, there’s a way in which it’s not just raising an awareness in a sense of these different interpretive moments but also these larger histories that are really important. The other piece is — I am with Thurman’s grandmother on this — I think there is a way in which we can invite the congregation to make assessments of whether these are the places — some of these texts, Phyllis Trible calls some of them texts of terror — that we in this congregation want to lift up, or are there other places we want to go to think about our work as made in the image of God? And so, for the pastor to not make those decisions but for the pastor to lead the communities through reflection and through awareness raising and expanding our understanding of our history. So, the congregation and the community together can articulate where are the texts that they see as foundational and important for engaging these matters in society, race, class, gender, xenophobia, you name it. That we want to lift up.

Doug Powe: And I think that is very helpful because I do believe, oftentimes, it’s easy to ignore those texts and not really to engage them and engage them authentically. What tips would you have for a leader trying to write their own Bible study?

Shively Smith: I think I will go back to “what do you see?” When you’re working with a Bible study, I actually would say it’s not a singular you. It’s a plural second person, the second person plural you. So — my Kentucky self will come out here — “Y’all. What do y’all see?” It’s a way of recognizing who all these texts in the New Testament were written for. And in service to a communal hearing, a communal reading, a communal reckoning in some ways, what I like to talk about is they are written with a sense not of individuals, but a sense of entire community. So, I think Bible studies need to start not with the individual past but the community as a whole. What is it that the community is struggling with? What are they curious about? And what does it mean to start with the community identifying what it is that they want to do, what it is they want to happen in their Bible study? And then, how do we lead from there? The other piece I actually think is what does it mean to shift your role as Bible study writer and leader to one of facilitator? So, you are just facilitating conversations around the biblical text and the experiences of the community. You’re not banking and just coming and giving them five points that they have to write down and take notes because they’re trying to capture what you said. No, no, no. What does it mean to use the Bible study to lead the community through a process of scriptural discernment and communal discernment and talking? I think those are real goals for any Bible study that you’re working with.

Doug Powe: And Shively, as we get ready to bring this to a close, I want to ask are there any resources that you think would be helpful for leaders in congregations to make use of as they are teaching the Bible in general or even thinking about creating their own studies?

Shively Smith: Yeah. So, in terms of online resources — we’re talking at the level of online resources and things they can get their hands on easily, that’s correct?

Doug Powe: That’s correct, yes.

Shively Smith: I would say I think Working Preacher is probably one of the most robust resources right now that’s constantly engaging thought leaders, congregational leaders, in thinking about the text. That’s a resource. I think Bible Odyssey is another resource online that’s available through the Society of Biblical Literature, I think. I’ll tell you I really enjoy the Westminster John Knox series, The Connections commentary series, and the Feasting on the Gospels and Feasting on the Word series. There you get four different points of view on these passages. They sort of get laid out and you get to hear different people engaging texts differently, which for me, opens us up to recognizing there are so many different ways to think about and to come at even one text.

Doug Powe: Well thank you very much. I believe this has been extremely helpful for our listeners and I know I’ve enjoyed the conversation. I so greatly appreciate you’re taking the time to do this.

Shively Smith: Thank you so much for having me and I hope all is well.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with Dave Ferguson about becoming a “hero maker” by focusing on making those around you great leaders..

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About Author

Rev. Dr. Shively T. J. Smith

Rev. Dr. Shively T. J. Smith serves as assistant professor of New Testament at Boston University School of Theology. Previously she was assistant professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.