Biblical witness, ethics and good romance novels: An interview with Celia Wolff

October 19th, 2015

Recently I was able to visit with Celia Wolff about topics ranging from Christian faith to her scholarly work on the book of Acts to the goodness of reading (good) romance novels. Celia Wolff teaches at Northwest Nazarene University. She is also a Th.D. candidate at the Divinity School at Duke University, where the focus of her studies is Christian Scripture and Ethics. She blogs at The Spirit's Witness and tweets too (@CeliaWolff).

Clifton Stringer: Many of our readers are committed Christians, and not a few work as pastors or in Christian leadership of some kind. How did you wind up being a committed Christian? And what led to your becoming a Christian theologian?

Celia Wolff

Celia Wolff: My parents are both committed Christians and we rarely missed a Sunday at church when I was growing up. I was very young when I became a committed Christian, but of course I’ve been learning what that looks like ever since.

I was interested in theological questions well before I knew to call them that. The first job I remember considering seriously was teaching. When I was a high school senior my history teacher encouraged me to consider teaching at the college level, and I remember thinking that was good advice. Going to Seattle Pacific University for my undergraduate degree played a huge role in helping me stay a Christian and moving me toward graduate theological education. I started out studying philosophy, but ended up enjoying Bible classes most for how they brought together a range of skills and questions. By the spring of my second year, I was planning to major in theology and taking a class from a professor with an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School. From there on, the doors kept opening up for me to pursue graduate theological education. While in the M.Div. program at Duke I had an important meeting with Richard Hays where he told me about the Th.D. program starting up, and that I should apply for it. I found my area of focus — Christian Scripture and Ethics — during a course that he and Allen Verhey co-taught. The Th.D. program has been a wonderful venue for pursuing this area of study, and prepared me well to begin teaching at NNU a year ago.

CS: Your dissertation work is on the picture of “witness” we see in the book of Acts. What are you discovering as you do this research?

CW: The most important discovery I’ve made about the language of witness in the book of Acts has to do with its multidimensionality. “Witness” in Acts plays in the dimensions of theology, epistemology, hermeneutics, politics and ethics, and a single instance of the word “witness” can play in any or all of those areas.

For theology, “witness” reminds the reader that the action begins with God. The witnesses in Acts only have that identity insofar as God has done something new in Jesus and Jesus himself has commissioned them to let others know about it.

For epistemology, “witness” in Acts says that one important and legitimate way of knowing is not only through firsthand experience but through the firsthand reports of others. The most important bit of news in the world is carried by witnesses, so witness must be a legitimate way of knowing.

For hermeneutics, “witness” is one important characterization in Acts for the nature of Scripture, which establishes some internal rules for what kind of reading runs with the grain of the Bible rather than against it.

For politics, “witness” is a way of being in public space that imagines good order in reference to a reality that insists on its truthfulness without resorting to coercion. “Witness” is a politics that unites truth and peace, for which reason Acts’ witnesses frequently are put on trial.

For ethics, “witness” in Acts is witness to Jesus, which in important ways is being like Jesus visibly, interpersonally and communally. An ethic of witness lives a life (individually and communally) that will remind others of Jesus and commend the goodness of such a life.

In short, I am learning to love the tapestried context for this language that Acts’ author weaves, which reveals “witness” as a vital and vivid thread in the whole picture of Christian life that Acts commends.

CS: As the early church knew, Christian faith and Christian perspectives can seem crazy to people who are not Jesus' disciples. And, surprise, the same is true today. Has your study of Acts helped you think through how we should approach the world and engage others with the gospel of Jesus Christ, even though they sometimes can't help but think we're crazy?

CW: The book of Acts is all about how followers of Jesus try to communicate his identity to others, so it would be a real shame if it hadn’t prompted me to think about how Christians today aim to do the same thing. From reading Acts, I’m persuaded that the Christian mode of inviting others to follow Jesus is still rightly called “witness” today, just as in Acts. In the evangelical circles in which I was raised, “witness” meant more or less telling someone that Jesus died for their sins and how to ask him into their heart, but in Acts witness is about all of life. Witness is both telling people the story of Jesus and living as a community that embodies together Jesus’ way of being in the world — a community life that cannot be explained apart from how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has made it possible.

One important thing I’ve noticed about the “telling-Jesus’-story” part of witness in Acts is that, early on (Paul is a different story on some occasions), the apostles do not approach anyone out of context and simply begin telling them about Jesus. They aren’t distributing Romans Road tracts to people on the street. Rather, they respond to the opportunities that arise from God making them too conspicuous to ignore, and making them the center of a situation that requires explanation. The explanation is Jesus. That’s what happens at Pentecost (Peter’s first sermon) and on the occasion of the man born lame (Acts 3-4). The “telling” of the story arises out of an opportunity that God made, or that occurred because God was working through the apostles when they behaved like Jesus — healing a man lame from birth. I think their modus operandi of taking opportunities to tell Jesus’ story, but not forcing such opportunities themselves, gives Christians today a helpful model for, perhaps, when to bear witness.

For the how of bearing witness in words, I think the fact of story-telling is crucial (an unfortunate pun, but there it is). To bear witness to Jesus, one must communicate his identity, and Jesus’ identity cannot be reduced to a principle or set of principles. It must always be the story, because stories are indispensably constitutive of a person’s identity. Telling Jesus’ identity as a story about the kind of life he led, the socio-political factors that led to his death, and his vindication by God’s raising him from the dead also helps to keep all the pieces intact — a story is much harder to break apart and take out of context than a list of principles, and it’s important that Jesus’ identity not be co-opted and absorbed into an ideology incommensurate to who Jesus was and is. It’s also important to tell the story unapologetically, that is, without defending it through coercion or ways of knowing that are inhospitable to a story that includes resurrection from the dead and miracles. The apostles never attempt to prove with certainty that the story they tell is true; rather, they simply tell the story, live a reflection of it, and let it stand on its own merits.

Francis Spufford, in his chapter on Jesus titled “Yeshua” in his 2013 book Unapologetic, does a brilliant job of telling Jesus’ story in this way. Above all, the apostles are honest. This habit may be among the most important that Christians today can learn from Acts — a profound habit of truthfulness such that they do not try to manipulate facts for their evangelistic agenda, or shrink from telling what they have seen and heard. Any way of being Christian in the world that smacks of deception is fatal to Christian witness, because witnesses cannot communicate effectively if their audience doesn’t trust them. Conversely, when Christians are relentlessly honest and forthright, those who don’t accept Jesus’ story may still be willing to listen even if they think we’re crazy for believing that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

CS: You've thought a lot about Christianity and higher education, both as a scholar and as a teacher. What does it mean for a Christian scholar to remain centered on the story of Jesus? What advice do you have for someone considering studying theology?

CW: I believe all Christians have a commission to tell Jesus’ story, but not everyone who is a Christian gets a chance to stand before a captive audience and tell the Christian story as she reads it out of the Bible, but that is largely what I get to do as a teacher. For that reason, everything I said in answering the previous question about the how of bearing witness applies directly to my teaching work. Staying centered on the story of Jesus in the subject matter of my intro to Bible classes isn’t all that difficult; I consistently frame the biblical story using the model of the five-act drama that Sam Wells describes in Improvisation — Creation, Israel, Christ, Church, and Eschaton. Jesus is the center of this story, and it is no small thing to tell that story faithfully. But in the practice of teaching, I think the most important thing is to give exercise to the habit of truthfulness, certainly about where the Bible is uncomfortable or unpalatable, but even more importantly, about my own failings and mistakes as a teacher.

In any practice (in the MacIntyrean sense*), some failure is inevitable. I will make poor judgments. I will not grade things as quickly as I should. I will not be able to prepare every lecture to the extent I would like. Not every quiz I write will be fair. And many mistakes I won’t even notice unless someone points them out. It’s inevitable. So on the first day of class I tell my students this bit of bad news — I will make mistakes, but I will do my best to acknowledge them honestly and work to do better in the future. I suppose this is my way of modeling and translating into everyday vernacular the practices that Christians call confession, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and transformation. This is the way of life that Jesus makes possible, and this is one way I’ve found to put it into action as a teacher. I hope that this modeling encourages students to practice truthfulness, because such habits matter in all of life and for the whole of life. Taken entirely out of context (I hope I’m not torturing them or sucking years from their lives!), I would enjoin my students with the immortal words of Count Rugen in The Princess Bride: “This is for posterity’s sake, so be honest.” My students may not all end up Christian, but I hope they will learn to love truthfulness regardless.

*philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, as in his important book After Virtue.

CS: On a perhaps lighter note — though maybe not much lighter than The Princess Bride — you also think there's a lot Christians can learn from reading romance novels! Really? Why should we be reading romance novels?

CW: I don’t know about “should.” I mean, I wouldn’t want to make it a moral imperative, but yes, I do think Christians can rightly enjoy and learn from the romance genre.

First off, there are really fruitful ways of thinking about Christians’ relationship with God as romance perfected. Kent Dunnington has written an illuminating article in The Other Journal on that topic.

Second, romance is a fundamentally hopeful genre. The heroes and heroines usually face a lot of adversity and struggle, but the rule is the book has to end “happily,” that is, with the major issues resolved and the hero and heroine reconciled, confident in one another, and ready to face life together going forward. So that means that no obstacle is insurmountable — there’s always hope. The genre celebrates the victory of goodness, beauty, and love.

Third, and certainly not least, the romance genre affirms the goodness of bodies and healthy sexual expression. Of course, sex in the romance genre is often idealized, but the point of ideals is to have something to live up to, and that’s not usually considered a bad thing. In my view Christians are far too squeamish about sex and do not talk about it enough or well. Mostly what I have heard from Christians about sex is, “don’t have sex until you’re married,” but that isn’t remotely adequate. Nowadays people are staying single well into their sexual maturity, and do not stop being sexual creatures merely because they aren’t engaging in intercourse (and probably many are, despite the prohibition).

Moreover, Christians have had very little to say about what makes sex good within marriage. Christians have made sexual ethics about when to have sex and with whom rather than how to act as a sexual creature in a way that is faithful to God (whether single or married) or, even more specifically, how to be a good sexual partner to one’s spouse. I know, could I think of anything more awkward? Pastors talking about the how of having sex? Umm… Choosing one’s contexts carefully helps, but I think romance novels can help alleviate the awkwardness. Part of what’s awkward in talking about sex is that one can’t talk too long before bringing one’s personal experiences into the conversation, and a lot of people are (quite reasonably) not comfortable with that. But reading romance offers characters and experiences to discuss that don’t require personal revelations (or at least not overtly). And because in the romance genre those encounters occur in the context of building a lasting relationship, they spark good discussion of what kinds of sexual expression foster a good relationship. Romance novels help readers think about what sex is for in building a relationship— how it builds trust, intimacy, mutual respect, enjoyment and so on.

Moreover, Christian ethics has long been normed by the heterosexual male experience, which is especially a problem when discussing sexual ethics. The romance genre, mostly written and read by women, foregrounds female sexual expression and experience. It shouldn’t be news that women are legitimately sexual creatures, but sometimes it seems that way in Christian circles.

I think Christians — women and men — reading romance has the potential to help us imagine better what it looks like for us to be whole, holy, embodied sexual creatures, and that is worth a lot. Of course it won’t be enough to read romance; Christians also have to talk with one another about sex and romance, find trustworthy and wise conversation partners and be judicious. But it’s a place to begin.

CS: If you had to pick one romance novel that every Christian and every pastor should read, which one would it be?

CW: Well, I’m not sure everyone should, but even so, it’s very difficult to choose just one. The perfect romance hasn’t been written, or I haven’t found it. I have enjoyed some authors more than others, but I don’t love all of any author’s books, nor everything about any single book. There’s none I recommend without some caveat. I started reading romance after I found an article on the Duke University website about Katharine Ashe — part-time historian at Duke, full-time romance novelist. She is also a lifelong devout Catholic with a strong sense of justice. So her books are smart as well as morally interesting. My favorites of hers are (oh, these titles!) In the Arms of a Marquess and How to be a Proper Lady, and I am especially looking forward to her forthcoming The Rogue. All these books are set in England’s Regency period, which I also enjoy very much.

I have also liked many of Laura Kinsale’s books. Kinsale writes the best and most beautiful prose I have seen in the romance genre. She has also invested in turning her novels into excellent audio books, personally selecting the very talented Nicholas Boulton as her narrator, which really capitalizes on her beautiful use of language. Kinsale’s books are usually (though not all) a bit grittier than many others. I like her medieval pair the best — For My Lady’s Heart and its sequel Shadowheart. In both of these books, Kinsale works within the parameters of medieval Christianity in a way that I find especially theologically interesting. Shadowheart tells a profound story of the hero’s redemption, but that also means he does some truly egregious things from which he must be redeemed. Readers of Shadowheart can’t be squeamish about some of the ugly realities of this world; they must be willing to face such evil as honestly as Jesus does when he is crucified.

CS: Last, what's on the horizon for you in scholarship and teaching? Anything exciting coming up?

CW: I am still writing my dissertation, so that is project number one and means I am not concretely conceiving new projects yet. I am fascinated by the irreducibly narrative Gospel, and by the fact that Acts is, more or less, a story that interprets the Gospel. My dissertation director, Kavin Rowe, has called Acts, “the ecclesial explication of Christology.” Sometimes the best way to interpret one story is to tell another. And there are many works of popular fiction that beautifully and effectively interpret the Gospel by telling another story: Les MisérablesCrime and PunishmentLord of the Rings, and even Harry Potter, for example, and there are many more. I am interested in what such stories do well and what makes them faithful interpretations of the Gospel, but I am not sure yet how or if that would translate to a scholarly project.

As far as teaching goes, I am now teaching a course called “Lord and Christ: Politics in the Book of Acts,” which is great fun and stimulating. Next semester I look forward to teaching “The New Testament and Christian Life.” This class marries my areas of concentration from my doctoral work, and will reflect the course — and the particular day — where I determined that I would concentrate in Christian Scripture and ethics. On the last day of that Scripture and Ethics class that Richard Hays and Allen Verhey co-taught during the fall of 2005, Hays discussed Scripture-shaped positive practices of Christian life that he would commend were he to write “The Pragmatic Task” section of Moral Vision of the New Testament over again. “But,” Hays said, “I’m not going to do that. That’s for you to do.” Some of those practices will shape this course and, possibly, a future project in New Testament ethics.

CS: Thanks for your time! Peace be with you!

CW: A pleasure!

Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of "Christ the Lightgiver" in the Converge Bible Studies series.

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