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An interview with Jane D. Schaberg.

Jane D. Schaberg is a feminist biblical scholar, poet, and teacher. She is the author of The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Scholars Press, 1982) and The Illegitimacy of Jesus (Harper and Row, 1987; Crossroad, 1992; and Sheffield, 1994). The second book became a source of controversy and, for some Christians, violence. These events were reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education ("A Scholar's Conclusion About Mary Stirs Ire," 40 O 6 1993, p. 7). Yet some feminist thinkers received the book warmly As one reviewer stated: "[This book] should be included on reading lists as an example of some of the fruits of feminist scholarship." (1) Schaberg's articles have appeared in journals such as New Testament Studies, Semeia, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and the Journal for the Study of Judaism. She is the author of the commentary on Luke in the Women's Bible Commentary, and on the Proto-evangelium of James in Searching the Scriptures, and is currently editing a festschrift for Elisabeth Schuss ler Fiorenza, tentatively titled Wisdom on the Cutting Edge. She has appeared on A&E and Lifetime TV discussing feminist scholarship. Her forthcoming book, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha and Christian Testament is forthcoming from Continuum. An excerpt is included in this issue of CrossCurrents. Schaberg teaches at University of Detroit Mercy an urban Catholic college. It is here, as we became strategic allies, that our friendship developed. This interview was conducted at her home in Detroit, with her cat, banned from the room for playing with the tape recorder's electrical wiring, yowling in the background. Our conversation was often punctuated with laughter This was a seriously fun interview.

Stephanie Y. Mitchem: How do you describe yourself?

Jane D. Schaberg: Fun-loving scholar.

SYM: How would you describe your discipline?

JDS: It is not usually fun loving. But it could become so.

SYM: Why is it not fun loving?

JDS: The discipline of biblical studies has traditionally been very focused on exactitude and correct methodology. There are some fun loving people in it, and some who tweak the establishment.

SYM: What do you mean by "exactitude and correct methodology"?

JDS: The whole traditional way of going about looking at an ancient text. Starting with the text itself, looking at the languages, raising questions about form, sources, redaction, history, ideology, and so on. The masters' tools, you know. But they work differently in different hands, in different frameworks, used for different tasks than the old ones; for new purposes. But you have to inject some fun into it. It can't be fun all the time, but more than it is now.

SYM: How can biblical studies be fun? That sounds like something with eighth graders in a Bible school class.

JDS: I think, first of all, you have to get in the mood to enjoy hard work. So I'm not talking about eighth graders cutting out construction paper. You just have to develop a sense that the really hard work is energizing and fun. I think it's fun when you get different voices commenting, that's what I did with Virginia Woolf [in the Magdalene book]. Not commenting on what I was doing, but commenting on what she herself was doing, and I overhear her and putting her voice in. I learned a lot from Woolf. She was a hard worker. Everyday she wasn't sick, she wrote from ten to one. She said all you have to do if you want to be a writer is move your hand from left to right, from ten to one, everyday.

SYM: You mentioned tweaking the establishment, what did you mean?

JDS: Well, I probably shouldn't use that kind of phrase because that will sound like I meant the Illegitimacy book as a tweak and I did not.

SYM: What was it?

JDS: It was a serious attempt to join the ranks. I was dead serious and I wasn't tweaking anybody in that book.

SYM: How would you describe the Illegitimacy book? I never realized you felt it was a....

JDS: A serious book? Hard work too?

SYM: I just presumed you would realize how "in your face...."

JDS: Upset people would be? No, I didn't realize that at all. I didn't realize it, I think, because I was so focused on following trains of thought and I didn't think about any audience reception. I guess if somebody had said, "Don't you think that certain scholars will be upset?" I would have said, "Sure." But what I hoped for was conversation that didn't come. I was very surprised about the University being so very childish.

SYM: Do you want to talk about that at all?

JDS: I've already written about that (2) so no more need be said. That [Illegitimacy] book was intended as a work of serious scholarship. The Magdalene work is also intended as serious scholarship. Only I had more fun with the Magdalene book. For one reason, I was coming out of chemotherapy with the Illegitimacy book. And I wasn't reading Woolf and widening my horizons. I was reading a lot of stuff but I wasn't pulling it into the biblical field.

SYM: What does it mean to start pulling things into the biblical field? Is that shifting methodology?

JDS: Let me put it this way. In the field, say of English literature, personal voice and the connections between different things, particularly in feminist scholarship, is standard. It's nothing new, it's not a method, you still use the old methods. But you can talk more freely about the text and bring all of your interests into it. Partly it's reader response, criticism, and looking at yourself, the way that feminist criticism has trained us to do, to say who we are and what we're interested in. Also, that what I'm making is a house of cards, mine's as good as yours, and I like mine better. Then let the readers say what they like. The ethics of biblical interpretation is important, we're looking for readings that increase creativity and inspire and energize people to work for justice.

SYM: Is that possible? Do you think the Bible is outdated to inspire people for justice?

JDS: Let's take the first thing first, the creativity. No, it's not outdated. I'm just reading some of the new poems by Milosz, (3) who's in his nineties now, still playing with the Bible. No, the Bible's great literature, it's not out dated. We see new things in it generation after generation. That's what makes it great. The ethical question is contemporary too. Not floating the Bible as a banner over various positions, but seeing the Bible itself as a site of conflict. Looking at how scriptural interpretation is conditioned by social location, how it serves political functions. Now after 9/11, it's clear we all have to get far more sophisticated about this.

SYM: You're also a poet. Why?

JDS: Well, it just happens. It's not like a career choice. I've written poetry all my life, but after my mother died fifteen years ago, I started doing it in earnest, joined a writers' group that meets once a month, and began to publish in small journals. While I've been doing the Magdalene book, a lot of the months I haven't done anything else. Because there's something about the other kind of work that does something to your unconscious, that streams it in one direction or another, it's not available for other kinds of writing.

SYM: What do you like about writing?

JDS: I really love to write, most of the time, even when it looks like drudgery. I like the process of discovery, and the sense of accomplishment in crafting something. I kind of like the solitary nature of it.

SYM: You're used to that now, the solitary nature? Sometimes I've described writing as living in a cave, because you go in to this interior space.

JDS: I don't know if I would describe it as living in a cave. Galway Kinnell (4) has this poem, "When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone," that's the refrain that runs through it. Things are different when one has lived a long time alone, or is a writer. Things are perceived differently. I think I like to write because that's the way I'm made and I don't apologize for it. And I don't apologize for being a scholar, that is what I am.

SYM: What has it cost you to....

JDS: It's cost me a lot of fun evenings, where I can't talk to anybody about what I'm interested in.

SYM: Why?

JDS: Well, Oprah had a show on yesterday....

SYM: Oh, Oprah?!

JDS: Well, one of my students called me. The two young women who wrote Manifesta, (5) Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, were on with Naomi Wolf and others, old feminists talking to young feminists. They were talking about Gloria Steinem marrying at sixty-seven. There was a clip of her saying that egalitarian marriages weren't all that possible in her -- and my -- generation.

SYM: That's what you mean about fun evenings.

JDS: Sure, being a scholar and a feminist narrows your choices for intimacy. I don't think it will in the future, maybe not even in my future, but it did. I wanted to discuss philosophical issues even back in high school. And you could see people's eyes rolling. It's a huge turn off for a huge segment of the population.

SYM: So one cost to you has been fun evenings. Has there been additional cost to do feminist work?

JDS: I didn't make a distinction between those two things because they've always been one thing for me. I don't think I just said all of a sudden that I wanted to be a feminist. I heard Susan Brownmiller say in an interview that a lot of men did not understand why she had to write a book on rape. (6) But she had narrowed the field. So there are costs, but it's worth it.

SYM: So what are the rewards?

JDS: I escaped a non-scholarly, non-feminist lifestyle. I know I never could have entered a traditional marriage. I wouldn't have been able to live in that water, I would have been so angry. I mean, I'm angry now, but nothing like the kind of self-destructive anger, lashing out.

SYM: Like that short story about the yellow wallpaper?

JDS: Yeah, I'd probably be picking the wallpaper off the wall. Wouldn't you, if you hadn't taken this career path?

SYM: I don't know. You know, you mentioned that sense of it just happened. I don't know why I'm like that, just going along with the flow.

JDS: I think I didn't sit down and set out a career path, but I've always thought of myself as a writer.

SYM: I have said I always wanted to write.

JDS: It is something worthwhile to do, and you leave something behind. You know, you've done your best; it takes all your energy.

SYM: What would you hope for the future of the discipline of biblical studies? You and I have talked before and you've sounded somewhat dismayed that it's not as open as it could be.

JDS: It's not as open, you look at the covers of some journals, and they're the same, year after year after year and there's no feminist stuff in them. And no queer studies, it's just plodding along like people plodded along in the 1960s. Yes, it's slow like a couple of other disciplines, like engineering and the military. It makes changes very slowly. Even when I was back in graduate school at Union Theological Seminary, I've always thought, now if I could design this Ph.D. program, what would it look like? It would have a lot of movies and theatre and reading in it, novels. It would have meaty discussion, not like a Bill Moyers's program where everybody just gets a sound bite. I'd get people from interesting disciplines really talking about the text, people like Andre Serban, Laurie Anderson, or Martha Nussbaum. Still, we would learn the traditional disciplines and the languages. Right now, what I'm using in one class is Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas and her idea for the experimental university of the futu re, a place where people are trained in the disciplines that don't prepare them for war. Let me read that passage.

Competition would be abolished. Life would be open and easy. People who love learning for itself would gladly come there. Musicians, painters, and writers would come there because they would learn.

JDS: I mean, imagine that.

It would be a place where society was free, not parceled out into the miserable distinctions of rich and poor, of clever and stupid; but where all the different degrees and kinds of mind, body, and soul merit cooperated. Let us then found this new college; this poor college where learning is sought for itself; where advertisement is abolished; and there are no degrees; and lectures are not given and sermons are not preached, and the old poisoned vanities and parades, which breed competition and jealousy....What should be taught in the new college, the poor college? Not the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital....The poor college must teach only the arts that can be taught cheaply and practiced by poor people; such as medicine, mathematics, music, painting, and literature. It should teach the arts of human intercourse: the art of understanding other people's lives and minds, and the little arts of talk, of dress, of cookery that are allied with them . The aim of the new college, the cheap college, should not be to segregate and specialize but to combine. The teachers should be drawn from the good livers as well as from the good thinkers. (7)

So cookery into the Ph.D. program in biblical studies. Why not? I try to inject this passage into teaching as much as I can, in the kind of structures that we've got. It does make me realize that we are pretty lucky to be in a poor college. Even though it's got the problems it has.

SYM: For the sake of the reader, do you want to describe the college?

JDS: University of Detroit Mercy, aside from all the blunders, is a place where excitement occurs in the classroom. I think it's the fortunate blend of classes and races and ages that really sparks all kinds of interesting insights and discussion.

SYM: You told me about teaching the Psalms.

JDS: Yeah, the Psalms was a great class! It veered off into the use of Psalms in rap music and people knew their stuff. I mean the place was jamming.

SYM: I just don't think of biblical studies as jamming.

JDS: It was a jamming biblical studies class! It really was. People had to come and shut us up. It was a course that incorporated some of the Holocaust material as well, Holocaust laments. One of the students brought a high school student of hers in who had set portions of Elie Weisel's Night to music, composed the music. We also tried to incorporate visual arts. That would all be included if I had the power to design a Ph.D. program for the poor college.

SYM: Isn't the real problem, not just at this university, the commitment to the liberal arts in a world that seems determined to dedicate itself to technology?

JDS: It's not just that. When I was in graduate school, talking to some of the professors, I realized that they were not educated in the arts. They read mystery novels, but not in the arts. That makes a big problem because the Bible is an artistic work.

SYM: Does working with the Bible in an academic setting lessen its power?

JDS: I think it can free it. You can free any piece of literature from being misinterpreted and badly read and you can help to free it from use for nefarious purposes.

SYM: So let's go back to the first question. How would you describe yourself?

JDS: Fun loving, tree hugging, animal loving equestrian. Serious. Shy. But angry. Able to easily access my anger. Like Harrison says, it's a vivid form of caring, a signal that change is called for, it can be a power in the work of love. (8)

SYM: What do you hope your contribution to biblical studies will be? In the future.

JDS: I don't know if I'm going to make any more contributions in this field, after the Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza festschrift. Then I'll concentrate on poetry. And maybe an academic novel. I'm not burnt out, but I ran a big marathon with the Magdalene book and I'm oxygen deprived. You know, I'm not sorry that I've had my career here at UDM. But no support for writing and research and getting crapped on takes its toll. I'm not bitter about it, but the fact is it needs to be talked about. The lack of funding has been very serious. UDM is not in the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), so a lot of scholarship money is not available to us. The AAR/SBL gave me a small grant once and I'm really grateful for it. But we need to free up the voices in the places like where we are. There are a lot of creative people out here, who need to be found and they need to be funded. Even more important, they need to be set free time wise to do work. So I haven't done all I wanted to do in biblical studies. I wanted to do a book on the Eucharist. Way back, I saw the Illegitimacy book as part of a trilogy -- the infancy narratives, the resurrection (the Magdalene book) and then the Eucharist. But I don't think I have the energy for that.

I know what it takes. We grow old, we might as well talk about it. You do deplete yourself; you do shoot your wad. And there are situations that make it more difficult and this has been one of them. You know, for a long, long time, I had no feminist colleagues at UDM.

SYM: The number of women has grown but that doesn't mean that all women are feminists. And the numbers of people of color are much lower.

JDS: That raises another advantage of working here, that the whole question of the small number of African Americans in biblical studies is right in front of our faces. I see talented men and women who I would love to be able to fund, to be able to help them get the languages, and they have the energy and the interest. But, for most, it's not a viable career move, number one. Also, the fundamentalism of some African American churches brings so much conflict. You saw that in the class you sat in on. And things got much, much worse in that class.

SYM: I could see that was going to happen, it was a car wreck.

JDS: It was a car wreck...a really interesting car wreck.

SYM: Interesting for you!

JDS: Sure. African Americans and the Bible9 edited by Vincent Wimbush is extremely helpful in the situation that I'm in. Some classes, like the New Testament class that I have now, are probably 70 percent, maybe 80 percent black. And I have to decide whether to go the route of having that crap hit the fan again for the whole semester -- the fundamentalists versus the, urn, I guess what we call the liberal or the scholarly. I think I've learned a lot of things from the car wrecks that I've supervised over the years, using the Wimbush book to help me work through some of the issues. Black fundamentalism is not the same thing as white fundamentalism. The history of the black church is not the same thing as the history of the white church, and the black use of the Bible is not the same as the white use of the Bible. I'm more interested, as the years go by, in the black use of the Bible. Wimbush does a lot on artistic themes and includes issues of scholarly interpretation. I think there are insights coming from th at direction that will change biblical interpretation if the African American scholars can get into this field. You must run into African Americans that you'd like to see come into the field.

SYM: Yes. One problem is funding. I got some funding when I was in doctoral studies through the Fund for Theological Education (FTE). It was very helpful. I owed a lot less when I left school. I probably would not have continued without the FTE funding. Which seriously reduced the amount of debt that I had to fall into.

JDS: The United States has to take a look at the talent its wasting. It's wasting African American intellectual talent.

SYM: There's so much that can be contributed. I think the data is that 11 percent of the membership of American Academy of Religion is minority, which includes black, Latino/Hispanic, any Asian, Native American. I don't know the figures for the Society of Biblical Literature.

JDS: You think things have changed and then figures like that rub your nose in it--we haven't changed that much. If you imagine this poor university with all the things we were talking about, you could imagine it being able to direct funding into areas that we're concerned about. That would be pretty great.


(1.) Horizons 16 no. 2 (Fall 1989): 378.

(2.) "A Feminist Experience of Historical Jesus Scholarship," in Whose Historical Jesus? (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997), 146-60.

(3.) C. Milosz, New and Collected Poems 1931-2001 (New York: Ecco, 2001).

(4.) Galway Kinnell, When One Has Lived a Long Time (New York: Knopf, 1996).

(5.) A. Richards and J. Baumgardner, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2000).

(6.) S. Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Fawcett, 1993).

(7.) V. Woolf, Three Guineas (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1938), 34, 35.

(8.) Beverly Wildung Harrison, "The Power of Anger in the Work of Love," in Weaving the Visions, ed. J. Plaskow and C. P Christ (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 214-25.

(9.) Vincent L. Wimbush, ed., African Americans and the Bible (New York: Continuum, 2001).

Stephanie Y. Mitchem is a contributing editor of CrossCurrents.
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Title Annotation:feminist biblical scholar
Author:Mitchem, Stephanie Y.
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
Previous Article:If only this could be said.
Next Article:The resurrection of Mary Magdalene: legends, apocrypha, and the Christian Testament.

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