Professor Carolyn Sharp: bringing Scripture to life in the classroom

Editor’s Note:  This feature story on Associate Professor of Hebrew Scriptures Carolyn Sharp represents the first in an ongoing series of articles about YDS faculty that will be written by Ray Waddle, editor of Reflections, YDS’s twice-yearly magazine of theological and ethical inquiry.  Waddle, an award-sinning journalist, joined the YDS staff in 2007 after serving as religion editor at The Tennessean in Nashville, TN for 17 years.  His stories will appear in Notes from the Quad on a monthly basis.

By Ray Waddle
Reflections editor

Carolyn Sharp, associate professor of Hebrew Scriptures, knows the look – the look of bafflement, sometimes panic, on the faces of readers grappling with difficult passages in the Bible.

SharpShe sympathizes. Scripture is monumental, dramatic, beautiful—also daunting, complex, alarming. Reading the Bible is a great adventure, Sharp says, but she worries that its themes, contexts and genres can perplex readers to distraction. She worries especially that the Old Testament is losing its relevance to Christian life and cultural memory.

Her new book, Wrestling the Word: The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Believer (Westminster John Knox), invites seminarians and churchgoers to engage the dizzying world of interpretation—not with dread but with confidence and zest.

“I wanted to write something that would not soft-pedal the academic arguments but would also invite readers to think theologically and personally about what’s at stake in these debates,” she says.

“People aren’t naïve. If they read the Bible, they know it’s not easy. It contains genres of literature we just don’t encounter any longer. It can seem culturally remote. The historical contexts are foreign. Nevertheless, I want to encourage readers as they struggle and soar to their own faithful and courageous interpretations of the biblical text.”
Stirring interest in Scripture is Sharp’s classroom passion, but it matters to her ministry too. In Summer 2011, she will be ordained in the Episcopal Church, culminating a sense of call that has followed her for two decades. She has no plans to leave YDS for a parish ministry position. As one called to a dual vocation, she sees priesthood as a dimension of sacramental leadership deeply connected to her lifelong Christian vocation to teach, write and preach.

“I discovered that was my path—to teach a love of Scripture and cherish God’s word and invite people into that enthusiasm and adventure,” she says.

A Connecticut native and Wesleyan graduate, Sharp received an M.A.R. from YDS and a Ph.D. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible from Yale University.

The idea for this particular book started incubating in the early 1990s during her doctoral studies. At the time, Sharp was a teaching assistant for Old Testament scholars Brevard Childs and Robert Wilson, helping students navigate the challenging terrain of the intro Bible course. She saw how jarring it could be for students to face historical-critical issues and the various schools of thought—feminist, postcolonial, postmodern—that give alternative readings to familiar Bible stories. More than once over the years, she has heard students mutter that the academic study of Scripture threatened their faith.

Sharp wants to dispel that feeling of suspicion or discouragement. A clue to her approach is embedded in the book title: “wrestling.” The word harkens back to Jacob’s mysterious confrontation with a divine presence in Genesis 32—a muscular sacred encounter where the stakes are meaningful and God is real. That’s how Bible-reading should be.

“For me, the metaphor of wrestling evokes a vigorous, lively engagement that sometimes feels like a struggle and sometimes feels like play,” she writes.

“God’s Word becomes incarnated in the lives of believers through our circling around it and taking hold of it, allowing it to ‘throw us to the mat,’ pushing back to discover its power and our own strength in particular circumstances, learning about our vulnerabilities as we try out different ‘holds’ on this ungraspable holy Word.”

Granted, Scripture teems with complicated history and narrative. But instead of fearing that complexity, readers should embrace it, see the wisdom of it, even delight in it, because it mirrors the complexities of real life, Sharp says. The Bible’s challenges are a blessing.

“Navigating the complexity of biblical truths in  faith is the joy of every believer and the special obligation of everyone  training for leadership in the church.”

“Otherwise we could just read Hallmark cards and advertising slogans in church on Sunday mornings (‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry,’ or ‘Because you’re worth it,’ or ‘Just do it!’). Navigating the complexity of biblical truths in faith is the joy of every believer and the special obligation of everyone training for leadership in the church.”

Making sure the Hebrew Bible stays relevant in congregational life is no small issue. Church history has long flirted with Marcionism, the impulse to miscast or cast off the Old Testament as alien to the message and ethics of Jesus and the New Testament.

Sharp makes it clear what would happen if Christians drift away from Hebrew Bible reading and affection.

“Without the Hebrew Bible, the heart of Christianity would be cut out,” she says. “We can’t know who Jesus is without the Old Testament. We can’t understand covenant without it. We’d be without the creation story. We’d be without the extraordinary panoply of responses to God that we find in the Psalms. And we’d be without the prophets’ full-bodied witness to justice and mercy. Without all those things from the Hebrew Scriptures, we wouldn’t have a clue about who we are called to be.”

Sharp’s own calling found focus when, 20 years old and a lifelong Episcopalian, she experienced a call to ordained ministry. After Wesleyan, she did refugee and social service work in Boston for four years. In 1991, she started graduate work at YDS and, fatefully, took summer Hebrew.

“I discovered I loved Hebrew -- from the first day,” she says.

That love soon embraced the Hebrew Bible itself. Further discernment and prayer granted vocational clarity: she would pursue the Ph.D. and teach and write. She joined the YDS faculty in 2000. Her books include Old Testament Prophets for Today and Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible, an exploration of poetic and narrative artistry in biblical texts. By 2007, the clergy calling stirred again, showing her the possibilities of a dual vocation.

In Wrestling the Word, Sharp conducts a crisp tour of the many current battles over interpretation, inviting readers into the fray but encouraging them to preserve their own reader integrity and theological convictions. She addresses conflicting assessments of the Exodus, David and the reliability of tradition. The book summarizes feminist, womanist, liberationist and African American hermeneutics. It discusses the bias inevitably present in all readings of the sacred text. She introduces readers to the bracing ideas of some of her own heroes—including Walter Brueggemann, Julia Kristeva and Emmanuel Levinas.

Sharp’s reputation as a skilled teacher has reached beyond the confines of Sterling Divinity Quadrangle. In 2007 she won Fortress Press’s annual national Teaching Award—cited for creative use of study guides in her Old Testament survey course and for how she “encourages peer learning by expecting students to engage the class as a whole with their own questions and explorations.”

In addition, Fortress Press recognized Sharp’s skill as a faculty leader and “superb teacher of teachers” whose work with teaching assistants “has formed the basis of what many of her colleagues now do to inaugurate new teaching assistants into their own work.”
Sharp’s own summary of Wrestling the Word’s aim might also serve as a personal statement of her mission in the classroom.

“I encourage folks to cherish those things they can’t live without while negotiating the waves and eddies of scholarly debate,” she says. “I want to host a generous conversation where students find their own voices.”

Posted: 01/03/2011