REFLECTION: An English Major Goes To Seminary

My Writing

An English Major Goes To Seminary by Julia Marks

At the time, I hadn’t realized that studying English at a major university would mold me.  I thought, as one would, that studying English would do just the opposite: unmold me.  Loosen the screws in my brain.  Make me see the world with a wider scope.

I studied Shakespeare, for Heaven’s sake.  And poetry.

Shouldn’t I be like one of those blankets used on picnics, spread out, sat on, accommodating?

But no.

I decided at one point in my life, the point where I had two small children and a serious, life-threatening disease that I needed something to do.  I found, in truth, that discussing small children (and just where does the snot end?) and ill health were overwhelmingly boring.  I really needed something to think about.

So I decided to go to seminary.  I would study, ultimately, Christian education.  But I would still have to take all the “seminary” courses: Old Testament, New Testament, church history, even sacred music.

So off I went.

I decided, given the actual, real demands on my time, that I would go first to a small, Roman Catholic seminary that was just up the street from where I lived.  I enrolled in a couple classes: Hebrew and Old Testament.

Oddly, I got the exact, same teacher for both courses.

He was, I found, an odd combination of Jerry Lewis and God.  He knew everything, it seemed, but he presented it as though we were all in a slap-stick movie.

Everything was funny.

Well, except when he asked the room full of students (mostly all young Roman Catholic seminarians, dressed in black and very, very serious about everything) if they could name the first five books of the Bible.

Someone chirped out, Genesis.

There may have been an Exodus, but I’m not sure.

Then and there, Father Boadt glared.

But then we were off, bumping down the stairs, slipping on banana peels, and shooting our water pistols.

A good time was had by all!

But this was a course, after all.  With serious dimensions.  Most especially for a mother of two small children and a serious, life-threatening disease.

I had to read the Old Testament through.  Understand that there were sections to it.  Sections that had their own internal coherence.  And rhythm.

(And all the while, working through my Hebrew vocabulary cards while watching soccer games, and learning to write backwards.  Father Boadt would tend to look down his nose at me and compliment me on my writing of Hebrew, and add, “You could do better with your translations.”  And I always wanted to answer, And just who are you cooking dinner for tonight, Father? but always managed a very polite, Yes, Father.  And then thought about how these seminarians that surrounded me had everything in their lives done for them, the same as what I did for my family, and I concluded that my progress in learning Hebrew was JUST FINE.  Thank you very much.)

Anyway.

A real  course in the Old Testament.  A course that had tests and papers.

So, there it was.  The first paper.  And I had found out that I just love Genesis.  If it were the only book in the Bible, I’d be just fine with that.

I could read it every day and be happy.  All those little details.  All those conflicts.  Oh, so very human conflicts.

I loved the characters and their failings.  Their so-much unGod-like behavior.  Their cruelty.  And stupidity.

And the way they talked to God.

Whatever, they would seem to always say.  Talk to the hand, because the rest of me is thinking about something else.  

So I decided to do my first paper on the women in Genesis.

What the hey.

And so I started doing research.  The books at the seminary’s library were thrilling.  All these different perspectives.

Father Boadt, it turns out, was one of the first Christian priests to forge a relationship with Jewish scholars so that a deeper understanding of the Hebrew Bible could be had.  So the library was just chock full of Jewish scholarly texts on Genesis.

How revealing!  I was learning Hebrew, so I could follow, somewhat, some of the explanations and arguments about understanding the texts.  And I saw, quite easily, that we Christians sure do like to put a spin on things that either originally spun the other way or didn’t have a spin at all.

I wish I still had that paper.

I wanted to post it here, but then I realized that the story of the paper might just as much fun to write about.

But I still have the memory of discovering that the whole Eve-punishment-for-eating-kumquats-in-the-Garden was oh, so much different than the way we look at it.  She was “condemned” to lie under her husband.  Meaning he would have sexual power over her.

I think that was it.

It was a long time ago.

But the more I studied the women of Genesis, with Tamar, easily becoming one of my heroes, the more the English major in me came out.  There was a pattern: a very, very clear pattern.  And I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to write about what I saw and hand that observation – very well written, but still – into the hands of a Roman Catholic priest.

My theory went like this:

The men of Genesis are these upright (ish), respectful-of-God (to his face) kind of guys.  Heroes.  Captain Americas.  You want me to kill my son?  Just hand me a sword and I’ll have his head off in a jiffy.

The women, on the other hand, do everything wrong.  Or bad.  Eat banned persimmons.  Laugh at God.  (And then lie about it.)  Steal “house” gods, hide them under your skirt and then claim that you can’t be searched because you are having your period.  And Tamar.  The greatest of them all.  You commit an injustice towards me?  I’ll become a prostitute and bring you the consequence of that conjugation and lay it at your feet.

(Bastard.)

Not nice ladies.

Bold, clever, problem-solving women.

Anti-heroes, in fact.

The men do right.

The women do wrong.

But it’s the women who get things right in the end.

Even in terms of Eden, in my opinion.

Who is supposed to stay in their parents’ home for the rest of their lives?

What need would there have been for Jesus if all the world had been perfect?

And, most significantly, God said, Actually Said, You, You Down There,

I Made You In My Image.

Well, how are we supposed to be like God if we don’t have access to the knowledge of good and evil?

How can God expect us to be the same as him, but keep something for himself?

And, besides, who puts a tree on Earth that humans aren’t allowed to eat from and expect us not to eat from it?

We’re human, after all.

Doesn’t make sense.

Clearly a set-up.

Anyway.

The women, the anti-heroes of Genesis, were the actual heroes of the stories.  Most of them, anyway.

Joseph, most woman-like in a lot of his characteristics, seems to make it through his mess by very un-male-like acts: suffering, service, dreams.

I was, I remember, very, very nervous about writing such a “radical” paper and turning it into the God-priest professor.  Would he tear it up?  Would he decorate it with a nice, big red “F”?

Or would he just say, Thank you for sharing, Julia,

And go on teaching as though that pagan heathen woman wasn’t really in the class?

No.

Actually, he walked the paper up to me personally, handed it to me, and advised me to submit it to “my people” and see if I could get it published.

I almost fell out of my seat.

He continued his tsking of my Hebrew scholarship, though.

(When I changed schools to “my” seminary and sat down to a woman teaching New Testament, I managed to bring tears to her eyes by talking about patterns and what-not, copy that hadn’t come straight right out of the textbooks or the recommended readings, and her reaction to my writing was a stuttering, but, but, but, you just can’t do that, Julia. . . .

What, think?

Go figure.)

So, yes, Virginia, there is a vast difference between English and theology.

Or the teaching thereof.

And the expression of both.

How they conjoin, how they screech off in different directions.

I’m blessed now by something called Inductive Bible Study.

The students in the Bible study class read the text, think about what they read, and comment accordingly.

Just like in English class.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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