Women Interpreters of the Bible

This past Monday was the monthly meeting of Toronto’s Theology Pub. Our guest speaker was my friend and Crux co-worker Heather Weir, who addressed us on the subject of “women interpreters of the bible.” It was an excellent night and I learned a lot. Heather is a person who keeps to herself, relatively speaking. Yet, each time I learn something about her I’m either surprised or impressed—most often both. I assumed she was an Anglican, considering she did her ThD at Wycliffe College, but it turns out she’s on the good side, that is, she is a Baptist. Indeed, she serves in the diaconate at Walmer Road Baptist Church. I was also happily surprised that she’s from my hometown of Windsor, ON. We lived in different parts of the city, but nonetheless, we share something of a similar past. I also recently found out that she was first intrigued into formal theological studies by Michael Haykin, as I was. In Heather’s case, it was hearing him give a lecture. For me, it was sitting in his Reformation to Today history class.

With those personal bits about Heather in mind, I knew that when she came to speak that I’d learn more—and really I did. While she and I would differ on some issues surrounding the broader context of her subject, everything that she said rapt my attention. Her talk was primarily historical, which of course warms my heart. She explained to us the broader academic project that she is involved in with other women scholars like Wycliffe’s Marion Taylor and McMaster’s Nancy Calvert-Koyciz. Together, they are doing a good work of historical reconnaissance drumming up important women figures from the Christian past (and sometimes Jewish) to reward the church with. Heather explained that their project has a three-step method: 1)  awareness; 2) analysis; 3) assimilation (sorry for the alliteration, that’s all me!). Basically, they want to make the church aware of important women interpreters from the modern period to today like Sarah Trimmer, of whom Heather wrote her dissertation, so that scholarly work could be done on them. After awareness is made, the next step is to evaluate each woman’s contribution to exegesis and the history of theology. What was their theological perspective, how effective were they at handling texts, how important are they relative to others? Finally, once the leg-work is well under way, and the subjects have been evaluated, their work is to be integrated into the church’s broader exegetical tradition. I think all of this is long overdue, deeply necessary, and exciting.

Heather has been involved in a number of academic projects that pushes this program forward. She co-edited a collection of primary sources with Marion Taylor called Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on Women in Genesis (Baylor, 2006). As the title indicates, it is a selection of various women commentators on texts in Genesis dealing with women such as Eve, Sarah, etc. This is helpful for expositors and exegetes today because it gives us an understanding of the mind of a nineteenth-century woman reading a text in her unique way. This book deals with the first step of awareness. Her other books are more of the second step variety. With Nancy Colvert-Koyzis she has edited Strangely Familiar: Protofeminist Interpretations of Patriarchal Biblical Texts (SBL, 2009)—that includes names like Marion Taylor, J. Ramsey Michaels, and Ben Witherington—and Breaking Boundaries: Female Biblical Interpreters Who Challenged the Status Quo (T & T Clark, 2012).

I have wondered if Heather’s perspective was driven by a politicized feminism. The question was asked at pub night by a local rector—and regular—if this was the case. I was thankful to see, however, that this broad project is for the benefit of the church, and is not merely driven by a political reaction to culture. Heather began her talk by speaking about the “communion of the saints.” I thought this was an enlightening way to express the purpose of the project—to benefit the greater Christian community by pointing out its important and neglected members who have contributed to the life and health of it in important ways.

If you read this post, and you are interested in finding out more of what this is all about, I’m sure you can contact Heather through her blog The Backlist. Ever the bibliophile (check out an interview on her reading habits here), it is appropriate that her blog is dedicated to books. It’s also appropriate that she deals with receiving all of the used and rare books at Crux where we work!

After Monday, I’m now officially interested. I had piles of questions and felt a little like I was commandeering the table at points. But hers is a project that I hope the church can get behind—it will only be of benefit.