Firstly, can you sum up what your recently released book is about?
Sally Douglas (‘Jesus Sophia: Returning to Woman Wisdom in the Bible, Practice, and Prayer’)
Across Christian traditions the persistence of male language and imagery for God dominates. The consequences of this God talk have been far reaching. Reliance upon male God imagery denies the fullness of God and the fullness of our own humanity, including the equality of women. However, within the New Testament and in early church texts, Jesus is celebrated in the language and imagery of the female divine, Sophia, Woman Wisdom.
In this book I step out the biblical evidence of Jesus Sophia in accessible ways and brings these sources to life. Readers are then invited to explore one of the most crucial theological questions that there is: ‘So what might this mean for how we live?’
Attending to both the implications for the church, and our day to day lives, this book challenges and prompts readers to take seriously this ancient understanding. Questions about discipleship, biblical interpretation, and theology are investigated. Understandings of the cross are revisited, female imagery for God is reclaimed and celebrated, and fresh and ancient practices of faith are discussed.
Robyn Whitaker (‘Even the Devil Quotes Scripture: Reading the Bible on Its Own Terms’)
My book is about how to read the Bible in a way that is ethical and faithful. Ethical, in the sense of concern for how our interpretation affects real lives, and faithful in the sense of honouring what the Bible is in the Christian tradition. I realised, however, that we can’t talk about how to read the Bible until we talk about what it is. So the first part of the book looks at what the Bible is (and is not), before arguing for a hermeneutic of love.
What did you hope to achieve when you set out to write it?
SD: During my doctoral studies I was astonished to discover widespread New Testament and early church understandings of Jesus as the female divine. While this reality is widely accepted within academic biblical studies, this is not known about in many congregations, or in the wider community. I set out to write a book that would present the biblical evidence in both thorough and accessible ways. I also wanted to invite people into robust conversation and reflection about how reclaiming this, long ignored, strand of Christian tradition might nourish and inform Christian practice and prayer today.
RW: I hoped to create a useful and thoughtful resource for thinking Christians who might never go to seminary or theological college but who want to be stretched in their ideas about the Bible. I hoped to deconstruct and challenge fundamentalist approaches, but also to offer something constructive for people who love the Bible and want to interpret it faithfully.
What prompted this particular subject or field of enquiry?
SD: Wisdom Christology-that is, understanding Jesus in relation to Sophia, Woman Wisdom-is precious, wild, and faithful. I wanted people to have access to this treasure that resides in our tradition. So many people think that they have to leave Christianity behind if they are seeking female divine imagery. But this is not the case. Not only does this book highlight earliest understandings of Jesus Sophia, this book also highlights aspects of discipleship, such as the importance of friendship and the call to share in hospitality, that have often been considered less important than other ‘serious’ expressions of faithfulness in the church.
RW: I felt compelled to write this because I keep meeting Christians who have been hurt by the Bible being used against them or have left very conservative churches yet still want to know how to read it. They have a high view of the Bible and take it seriously but realise a fundamentalist approach does not hold up to scrutiny. This book takes the Bible seriously, but not literally.
What motivates, or inspires, you in the writing process?
SD: I continue to be motivated by the desire to engage with the complexities of the biblical text and theology and to bring a taste of these to contemporary readers. I am passionate about exploring key questions about the divine, meaning and faithfulness. I also love bringing writers from the early church, and through the centuries, into dialogue with contemporary thought amidst the realities and challenges we are facing.
RW: Writing is hard work, and slow. But it helps me to remember why I’m writing and imagine the people for whom I am writing. That, and coffee.
What is the general process you follow in writing something like this?
SD: When I am writing a book, I tend to map out an outline for the whole book, with notes about the contents for each chapter. I then set myself both micro goals and larger goals for completing various sections by particular dates. My most recent book had a fairly short turn around period and so I set goals to complete each draft chapter by a particular month, leaving a healthy amount of time for editing the full manuscript before it was due with the publishers.
RW: I had mapped out the book in terms of the general content and had a publisher interested before I started writing. I had also read similar books to see what was out there and where the gaps were. Yet despite that planning, I am the kind of person who works things out in the process of writing. So, once I actually started writing, I found myself doing a deeper dive into things like the doctrine of inerrancy in order to be able to write a few paragraphs on the matter.
Are you someone who thrives during that process or do you find you sometimes have to “drag” yourself to the computer or writing desk?
SD: Great question. I love writing, especially in the fields of biblical studies and theology, and I miss the writing desk when I am away from it for too long. When I am writing, time often evaporates as I excavate a certain biblical text, wrestle with its theological implications, or pore over the right words to convey a particular idea. When I drop into that ‘flow state’ it is an experience of exhausting, energising bliss. It feels like an expression of worship for me – an abiding in God.
RW: I often have to drag myself to the writing desk and yet find that when I am there I do enjoy it. Starting is the hardest part.
Does a sense of doubt ever enter the equation?
SD: Always remembering your humanity and frailty helps. This, and checking your sources. I seek to be honest when I am offering a minority view. I also never seek to present ideas as though I have all the right answers. Instead, I aim to invite people into the sources and the big questions so they can continue the work themselves. Ongoing prayer and mulling are essential as well—and humility is key.
RW: Always. There is always doubt. You wonder if anyone else cares in the way you do. Does the world really need another book about how to read the Bible? I decided they might since no one has written a book quite like this.
How do you juggle writing with the many other things going on in your life?
SD: It takes a great deal of discipline. I am 0.8 in the parish I serve (four days a week) rather than full time (five days a week). This enables me to have a writing day each week. Or, if I work full time for a few weeks in a row, I then take those days back in the fourth week so that I can create something of a ‘writing week’ each month. This has helped to create sustained space to write my last two books, as well as articles and book chapters. However, it is tricky and tiring as inevitably there are parish and wider church demands that impact upon this writing time and I can end up working very long days in those weeks. I seek to utilise the two study weeks that all ministers are expected to take each year for research and writing. As well as this, for several years Richmond Uniting has very generously given me two additional five-day study weeks each year, in recognition that my writing serves the wider church. This has been such a gift for completing writing projects. It is precious when congregations recognise that ‘their’ minister also has gifts for the wider church and supports them to share these.
RW: I am a morning person, so the best time for me to write is the first few hours of the day before I open email. I am not great at juggling and prefer to find blocks of time to blank out and be able to immerse myself in a writing project.
You obviously know each other well through Pilgrim Theological College and your involvement in the ‘By the Well’ podcast, so do you sometimes bounce ideas off each other during the writing process for your respective books?
SD: We haven’t tended to bounce ideas off one another for particular writing projects or for our new books. However, it is great to discuss various aspects of New Testament studies when we co-host By the Well, as well as in other biblical and theological forums. It was a joy to be able to launch our new books together recently. It is excellent to have vibrant New Testament colleagues in the same city and denomination.
RW: Sally and I actually didn’t discuss these books in advance so we did not know what each other was writing. Holding a joint book launch was an idea that emerged when we realised our books were coming out at a similar time (a nice coincidence since we don’t have any control over publisher’s time lines). I do, however, bounce ideas off colleagues all the time and find that essential to any writing project.
What do you hope follows from the release of your book in terms of how readers might engage with it?
SD: I hope that this book disrupts, enriches, and expands peoples’ understandings of early church christology. I hope that the book supports and equips people to dive deeply into questions about Jesus, divine gender, and the shape of contemporary discipleship and being church. I have written liturgies for each chapter in the book, and I hope that these are nourishing for people in their journey with the Holy One – Sacred Three, both in their faith communities and in their personal lives.
RW: I talk in the book about how we are invited into conversation with the Bible and with one another. Quoting Scripture is not the end of a conversation but the beginning of one, so my hope is that ‘Even the Devil Quotes Scripture’ sparks conversation between people about how they use and interpret the Bible. I have developed a resource for book discussion groups which is free on my website.
How has the feedback been from readers?
SD: The feedback about the book has been deeply moving. People, and faith communities, have contacted me to thank me for the way in which the book has deeply spoken to them, and has expanded their theological horizons, practices of faith, and their prayer lives. Recently I was humbled that someone contacted me from the United States to let me know that they had written a song about Jesus Sophia, inspired by my book.
RW: So far the feedback has been really positive. One man sent me a tweet saying it was the most helpful book on biblical interpretation he has read. I have, obviously, decided to stop reading further comments now as I can’t ask for more than that.
What makes a good theological book?
SD: For me, a good theological book engages seriously with the biblical text, with questions about the divine, and with the complexities of being human. I also think good theology is grounded in the ongoing practice of seeking to listen for the Spirit. The writer Thomas Merton once said that “the perfect theologian is one who is a contemplative and has an experiential realisation of the mysteries of faith rather than just a book-knowledge about God and the mysteries of faith”. I tend to agree.
RW: I think the best theological books are written in a way that is accessible (not too much technical language or jargon) but also challenging. Good theological books should ideally stretch our ideas, challenge our biases, discomfort us, as well as give us something hopeful to hold on to.
What is next on the writing schedule?
SD: Right now, on my writing days I am working on a couple of academic articles about church theology, both in ancient and contemporary contexts. I have also begun collating some of the liturgies that I have written for both personal and corporate prayer. I am excited about diving into my next big writing project, focused on the texture of Christian hope in the middle of the messiness of life.
RW: I’m currently writing Revelation for Normal People for the Bible for Normal People group. People might know them from their podcast with the same name. It is a small book designed to bring scholarship about Revelation to people in a readable and accessible way.