Professor of Bible, Religion, & Philosophy
BA, University of Alberta, 1980
MA, McMaster University, 1986
PHD, McMaster University, 1992
WHEN YOU WERE A CHILD, WHAT DID YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU GREW UP?
The first occupation that I recall aspiring to as a small child was that of a missionary, not because I was a particularly pious or devoted child, but because the only people I had met who traveled to interesting places were missionaries. By the time I was a teenager and began to give more serious consideration to what I would do with my life, I had come to realize that to be a missionary, I would have to go as a pastor’s wife, and since I did not meet the necessary qualifications, neither playing the piano nor being able to defer to men’s ambitions, I struck missionary off my list. I wanted to do something useful, and for a number of years, I thought about a career in the sciences. Students today are scandalized to learn that I entertained the idea of going into genetics in order to engineer food that would not spoil or be subject to blight. Mine was the noble hope of meeting the developing world’s food needs.
WHY OR HOW DID YOU CHOOSE YOUR FIELD?
My intention to study genetics was derailed by a powerful desire to study theology and world religions, to feed souls rather than bodies. After high school, I spent a year at a United Church retreat centre in the interior of B.C. in a program with about 30 other young adults in which we explored a wide variety of topics from death and dying to inner city ministries in downtown Vancouver. I met a number of United Church ministers who encouraged me to pursue a theological education. When I began my undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta, I hoped eventually to attend the United Church seminary in Vancouver, not so much because I felt called to pastoral ministry, but more because the only theologians I had met were also pastors. The fact that there were virtually no female pastors in the United Church of Canada at that time was an obstacle that I put to the back of my mind. I had four years of undergraduate work and three years of seminary to get through before I needed to fight the fight.
During my undergraduate years, thoughts of going to seminary faded. In retrospect I realize that because I stopped going to church, my strong sense of belonging to the United Church ceased to be central to my identity. Moreover, my mentors had become professors, and so I began to desire an academic career in Religious Studies. I felt that there was nothing more important to study and seek to understand than the powerful ideas of a transcendent reality that helped people organize their lives in meaningful and selfless ways.
WHAT HAS BEEN A STRUGGLE IN YOUR CAREER JOURNEY?
I had grown up with two brothers who excelled academically, and I learned to think of myself as a second rate student. I did much better at university than in high school, and I did have a few professors who encouraged me to go on, but I looked about me and found very few female role models. Those women that I did have as professors lived as though they had taken holy orders, as though a woman could not have a family and an academic career. My mentor confirmed this observation by telling me that women were treated seriously in graduate school only if they were single minded about their studies and refrained from showing interest in their appearance or in dating. So when I fell in love with a young man who was heading to Victoria, where my family was beginning to relocate, to study law and he asked me to follow him and eventually marry him, I packed up my belongings and took up residence in Victoria.
I studied part time for several years in order to acquire a couple of teachable subjects (English and Social Studies) and obtained a teaching license and, from time to time, tried to interest my boyfriend in talking about a wedding date. Three years past, he had his law degree, and finally, he changed his response from “let’s wait until I have my degree” to “I don’t think that I believe in marriage.” He left Victoria to obtain a masters degree in law in Toronto with a parting promise that we would pick up the conversation when he got back, and I stayed in Victoria, my life now in some sort of hold pattern.
For the duration of my so-called engagement I had experienced some illness or another, and when my liver suddenly ceased to function properly, my cholesterol levels started to climb. After suffering at the hands of a number of specialists, a doctor of internal medicine suggested that if there was anything that I wanted to do with my life that I had better do it now, since he did not anticipate that I would live until forty. As my so-called boyfriend/fiancée … whatever … who had not bothered writing all year was traveling back to Victoria, I got on a train and traveled east to take up residence in Hamilton Ontario and begin working on my graduate degrees in Religious Studies.
There is something strangely liberating about the idea that one does not have long to live. I did not worry about how well I would do or if I would finish the degrees or if I would find a job at the end of it all. As a result, I did very well, earning distinctions and fellowships and spending significant time in Israel and Germany. I worked hard and enjoyed the intensity of my studies, and I managed to acquire a husband and a son before it was all over. The old order in which women could be mothers or scholars but not both had vanished in the 1980’s. I also agreed to be a guinea pig in a major lipid study at the university medical center and learned that I had a number of anomalies in my body’s make up that suggested that I would live a normal life span or even longer, provided that I avoid walking into a bus (as the director of the study put it).
Having studied religion in a secular university and given that my specialty was late Second Temple and early Rabbinic Judaism, in particular the laws of binding utterances, finding a position in a secular university seemed like the logical next step. The problem was I finished in one of those years when no one seemed to be retiring in Canada and I wanted to stay in Canada. I was prepared to wait for something to open up by looking for a clerical job at the university to support my family. But then, one evening in February 1991, a call came from the pastor of the small Mennonite congregation of which I had become a member. He had just met with some faculty members from Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now Canadian Mennonite University) who had expressed frustration at being unable to fill a two-year position in New Testament with a female candidate. He had told them about me, and they soon got in touch. After a successful interview, I found my career heading in a very different direction than I had anticipated. Two years at CMBC reshaped my identity as a scholar, and when a position opened up at Goshen College in 1993, the fact that it was in the States was overshadowed by the attractive prospect of continuing to teach within a Mennonite institution.
WHAT’S EXCITING ABOUT YOUR JOB OR THIS FIELD?
Part of my answer to this question is the same as my answer to why I chose this field: I enjoy thinking about the ultimate questions and getting students to think about them. When someone asks me why I like teaching at Goshen College in particular, I answer, “We have the best students. They sincerely believe what they are learning matters.” My colleagues who teach at other institutions are jealous.
WHAT GREAT ADVICE HAVE YOU BEEN GIVEN?
From my brother: Sit in the front row and make sure the professor knows your name.
From David Jobling, PhD: Find colleagues who share your interest by deciding in which working group in the Society of Biblical Literature you can imagine yourself presenting papers and then going to their business meeting.
WHAT ARE YOU REALLY PROUD OF? (IN A MENNONITE, HUMBLE SORT OF WAY, OF COURSE)
In part because of the demands of teaching at a small liberal arts, church owned, college, and in part because of the lack of colleagues with which to engage in the sorts of dialogues that stimulate academic scholarship, there were times in my early years of teaching that I thought that research and publications might get squeezed out of the picture. Nevertheless, I doggedly continued to attend meetings of the Canadian Society of Biblical Literature and joined the horde of scholars attending the Society of Biblical Literatures annual American meetings. I followed David Jobling’s advice and I wormed my way into smaller group at the SBL by attending their business meeting. I made sure that I always had a research and writing project on the go even if progress was at a snail’s pace. As a result, my list of publications in reputable journals began to grow at a reasonable rate for a GC professor (just don’t compare it to Steve Nolt’s) and an idea began to form for a book that I was able to complete during my first Sabbatical.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?
Now that I have written out this story, it seems like much more of a straight shot from interest to vocation than it seemed while I was living it. For much of the time, I felt as though I were stumbling along hoping against all odds that I would be able to support myself by using my education. I did have the teaching certification to fall back on if necessary, and I never desired the sort of material wealth that required a high paying job, so I didn’t spend much time worrying about employment and, for the most part, enjoyed the getting of my education. As I was bumping along, I tended to think of myself as an individual striving to make it on her own merits, making her own decisions, and finding her own way. In retrospect, I realize that my life made the most sense when my mentors within the Church (either the United Church of Canada or the Mennonite Church) were directing me. I wouldn’t say that the Holy Spirit was at the helm of my life, but rather there were many people along the way who were more open to that Spirit and the Spirit guided them to intervene in my life. That Holy Spirit is tenacious and resourceful, thank God!
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A YOUNG PERSON JUST STARTING OUT
I wish now that I had stayed connected with the Church throughout my early adult years and that I had learned earlier to pay attention to the Holy Spirit. This is my advice to my students: continue to be an active member of a congregation and don’t ignore that still, small voice that says, “Don’t be afraid, I am with you.”