Robyn on the fly

robyn whitakerBARRY GITTINS

Reverend Dr Robyn Whitaker is walking briskly in pursuit of a Melbourne tram, in transit from lecture to appointment, as she fields queries from Crosslight on her mobile.

There is no falter in either the pace of her stride or the clarity of her answers.

Robyn currently is the Bromby Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies and the Academic Dean at Trinity College Theological School, but this month commences at Pilgrim Theological College as the Coordinator of New Testament Studies.

Although she is perhaps best known as a public theologian willing to venture into current societal debates, Robyn says that teaching is a foundational part of her work.

“The more I study the Bible, the more fascinating I find it and the more mysteries there are,” she says.

“It keeps me coming back; it keeps me interested, and I like to foster that in others – the interest and passion.

“At a more vocational level, reading and interpreting the Bible is absolutely central to the Christian life. So to be involved in helping people develop the tools and skill to do that is an enormous privilege, and central to my calling.”

As a biblical scholar, Robyn has a particular interest in the use and misuse of the Bible in debates about issues such as sexuality, gender and ethics.

She draws awareness to the Greco-Roman world and the culture that the church was born into, as the context into which the content of scriptures was poured out when the Apostles spread the nascent faith in Jesus Christ.

Robyn says that trying to examine biblical texts in isolation from their context leads us down theological cul-de-sacs.

“One of my guiding principles in the classroom is that context is everything,” Robyn says.

“The language changes; we can’t just simply look at one word from 2000 years ago and think it means exactly the same thing that we mean when we use that word today.

“We also can’t assume that the worldview that informed the use of a word, the context that we come from as readers, and the context in which it was written, are constant – there can be massive differences and a plausible range of meanings.”

Robyn has written that the Bible’s major thematic preoccupations concern justice, economic equality and the fair treatment of foreigners and strangers, rather than the perennial hot button issues, such as those around sexuality, with which the church as a whole is often associated.

She says she feels some responsibility to contribute to the marketplace of ideas, in the ways that the early Apostles such as Paul did.

“For me, it’s a form of evangelism,’ Robyn says.

“Evangelism is a bit of a dirty word these days in the Uniting Church, but actually, it’s about putting a compassionate and, hopefully, articulate face on Christianity. It’s saying, ‘We have a message about God’s love shown in Jesus Christ, we have something to contribute to society, and we need to be in the conversation.’

“Religion of any kind is deeply important to people’s lives, cultures and communities. So I am motivated by a little bit of apologetics, and a little bit of evangelism, with a sense of responsibility.

“I’ve been given an awful lot of opportunities and I need to contribute where I can, to church and to the world. This is one way that I can do it.

“As an academic, I’m probably not going to be the best person to rally the troops on a march; I’ll go on marches, but everyone has their own calling.

“This feels like mine right now.”

However, Robyn believes that abstract arguments are unlikely to change people’s point of view.

“Facts and rational arguments don’t change minds… people do,” she said.

She is delighted that Pilgrim Theological College works to push its students to engage with both academic disciplines and communities, with the human “give and take” of ideas and discussion.

“We also need to listen to the experiences of each other.”

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