“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (14): Lindsey Trozzo

“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (14): Lindsey Trozzo August 8, 2014

IMG_1170Today’s “aha” moment is by Lindsey M. Trozzo (BA, Biola University, Biblical and Theological Studies;  MA, Talbot School of Theology, NT). Trozzo is ABD in her PhD work at Baylor University, where she is writing her dissertation is on ethics in John’s Gospel and utilizing Rhetorical Criticism to uncover John’s non-propositional ethic. Trozzo is also working at Texas Christian University as the Research Assistant to the Bradford Chair (David Moessner), where, along with researching and teaching, she is coordinater the Second Century Seminar and manages subscriptions to Novum Testamentum Supplement Series (Brill).

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I often think that students take the view that one of my jobs as a professor is to reassure them that the Bible does not say anything that they do not already think, and to show how when it says something outrageous it does not mean it.

~ John Goldingay

This was certainly my mindset when I began my biblical education. “I’m not sure,” was a phrase I avoided like the plague. For as long as I can remember, I have been driven to say, “I know. Now let me show you why.”

At home, at school, and at church, I worked as hard as I could so that I would be able to raise my hand with the right answer. “I’m not sure” was a bad place.

This inclination toward certainty extended into my academic life: K-12 Christian school, B.A. in Biblical Studies from an Evangelical university, M.A. in NT from an Evangelical seminary, PhD program in Biblical Studies (in progress). I met success in academic life.

And for a good while, my accumulation of answers was quite empowering.

At first (as the joke goes) seminary “taught me just enough to make me dangerous”— meaning, my seminary-trained and self-inflated ego could out-argue others on a given Bible topic. This wasn’t only a fault of my particular educational system. Broadened scholarly horizons, on their own, would simply fuel me with different data to make different arguments – but for the same problematic purpose.

As a professor of mine has joked, “You can make the data say anything you want – if you’re smart enough.” So my “aha moments” aren’t necessarily about escaping conservative dogmatism.

They are about escaping dogmatism on all sides.

I would say I am experiencing an “aha evolution,” one still in progress, where I’m learning to identify my tendency to look to the Bible to affirm things I think I already know (rather than looking to the Bible to learn something new).

This evolution is about learning to live somewhere in the middle, about becoming more comfortable saying, “I’m not sure.”

The most significant moments in this evolution have not come from my own close readings of Scripture, nor from grating tensions encountered in a conservative classroom or church setting, nor from a moving and persuasive article or essay.

Certainly scholarly arguments have transformed my views about very important issues. Certainly my own close readings of the text have led me to concede that the “biblical stance” on any given topic is not as straightforward as I would like to admit. Yet still, I attribute my personal evolution to something much simpler:

I started listening to people who were different than I was.

In many ways, I am grateful for the conservative context in which I grew up. I was well-loved, and my own conservative community was of the gracious variety. But one detriment of growing up in a close-knit Evangelical faith community (at least in my experience) is that everyone agrees on everything – or at least on the important things.

Dissenting voices are treated with a special brand of caution. Even in the most gracious communities, those dissenting voices are certainly not given the same space as the voices of insiders. For me, this dynamic continued into my academic context as well, since I chose to attend a university and a seminary that resembled the conservative setting of my upbringing.

Though such an approach was never directly prescribed, reading in such a community fueled my tendency to treat the Bible as a means to affirm my stalwart doctrinal positions. Reading in such a community strengthened my sense that “I’m not sure” was a bad place.

It’s not for me to say whether other members of this reading community had the same motivations – perhaps some were actively trying to disengage their presuppositions and see whether some long-held beliefs might be challenged by the voice of the text. But that was not my approach at the time.

Slowly I began to feel a growing chasm between my close-knit Evangelical scholarly community and the diverse community with whom I lived everyday life. I began to see how the positions I had become so equipped to defend simply did not line up with the common human decency I saw expressed by those whom I would have called ill-informed, untrained, or even heretical.

Good people with amazingly powerful common sense had me wondering, “What if we are wrong? What if I am wrong?” It was this, the laying aside of “I know” and the taking up of “I’m not sure,” that invited the conversations that would shape a new perspective for me.

Reading and discussing the Bible within a diverse community (and mostly listening), I gradually learned a more generous approach to the Bible, to others, and to myself. A few members of this diverse community stand out (though there are many others):

  • My profoundly “liberal” freshman roommate who lived a Gospel that extended unquestioning love to those our community excluded and judged most.
  • My upstanding, inspiring, charitable twin brother whose fearless vulnerability and courageous pursuit of accepting himself and others as the image of God challenged my own deep-rooted prejudice.
  • My unique and freethinking husband whose unconditional love for me and openness to every person I’ve seen him encounter stood in stark contrast to my own principled self-importance and need to be right.

Listening to these voices resulted in new questions and led me to more flexible answers than I had previously been able to see in the text.

Becoming an observer of my tradition and myself, I began to realize the inconsistency of interpretation among many Christian communities who adopted a stricter hermeneutic on some issues and a more flexible hermeneutic on others.

Mostly, this community helped me to acknowledge where I was making the text say more than it was really saying, where I was forcing the text to take a stronger position than it really took, where I was overlooking complications and complexities in the biblical witness.

Scholarship has since affirmed that evolution that was birthed in experience and community. I was pleased to find that these more flexible ways of reading has long-held a place in the wider world of biblical scholarship—beginning with premodern communal interpretation, continuing with the rise of liberal theologians, and extending into the academy today.

I am happy that our postmodern context allows similar “concessions” for those of us who read the Bible from a theological standpoint. For me, self-reflective and self-aware reading is only possible when I ground myself in a diverse community.

We still all read from a subjective standpoint, and this is something I’m not sure we can escape. But by reading in community, deliberation can free us from dogmatism. I hope that I will continue to listen to my friends who will help me to read reflectively and engage deliberatively, to err on the side of love, and to readily admit “I’m not sure.”

Some resources on reading in community (thanks to my own community for these):

The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the BibleScot McKnight

Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church, Merold Westfall

Hermeneutics: An Introduction, Anthony C. Thistelton

The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational HermeneuticJames K. A. Smith

The New Testament and the People of GodNT Wright

Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament StudyMarcus Bockmuehl

Practicing Theological Interpretation: Engaging Biblical Texts for Faith and FormationJoel B. Green

Reading In Communion, Stephen E. Fowl

Remembering Jesus: Christian Community, Scripture, and the Moral LifeAllen Verhey

Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom: Scripture and Theology, eds. David F. Ford and Graham Stanton

The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning, eds. David F. Ford and C. C. Pecknold

Scriptural Interpretation: A Theological ExplorationDarren Sarisky

Theology, Rhetoric, Manuduction, or Reading Scripture Together on the Path to GodPeter M. Candler, Jr.


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  • Randy

    I agree. There is nothing wrong with saying “I’m not sure.” or even “I don’t know.”

    • MattB

      In theory agnosticism is possible, but in reality, Agnosticism about certain things is untenable.

  • Thanks so very much for so eloquently articulating what I’ve come to embrace, thanks primarily to the discipline of philosophy. Behind the “I’m not sure” lies the invitation to wonder “How do you know this?” Were it not for epistemology, me thinks I would go mad!

    • Lindsey Trozzo

      Ha ha, yes indeed. Thanks, Paul. I won’t pretend to be a philosopher, but philosophy has a way of creeping in to these types of discussions – and helping us articulate our process.

  • A. David Griffin

    “This evolution is about learning to live somewhere in the middle, about becoming more comfortable saying, “I’m not sure.” –

    This statement resonates with my life so much. Acquiring what Dr. Todd Mangum refers to as a “generous orthodoxy” has brought great tension with greater balance in my theological pursuits. And when I say “theological pursuits”, I’m referring to engaging people “with” God. Thank you for a refreshing perspective that invites me to appreciate even more of how Great is our God! Thank you.

    Oh yes, it was incredibly fresh to say to my daughter in Bible study last night – “I’m not sure about that. I don’t know”. Another gift of authenticity.

    • Lindsey Trozzo

      I love the idea of “generous orthodoxy.” Thanks, David.

  • Nita

    What a great article! I identify with this in so many ways but came to this at a much older age than you, Linsey. I’m so thankful that you are on this journey younger in life and pray for many more to join in this heart-expanding journey of listening to diverse voices. God bless you!

    • Lindsey Trozzo

      thanks, Nita.

  • pedro

    if this stuff is such a mystery and so elusive, why are you bothering…

    • Jrob

      Pedro– saying “I don’t know” is not saying “it’s too elusive for me to understand.” Linsey is asking us to come at the text with humility and a willingness to say “I’m still searching, listening, and learning.” Please re-read her article with the idea of a humble reading in mind. I’d be interested to see if your reaction changes.

    • Lindsey Trozzo

      Pedro, thanks for posting. I resonate with your response. It can be difficult to maintain a sense that there are things worth pursuing even when we cannot fully grasp them. But, it seems, most of the things worth pursuing are things that we can’t fully grasp.

      I have decided to hold on to the tension that the truth expressed in the Bible is worth pursuing even though reading humbly and communally is difficult. It would be much easier for me to bring a pre-existing interpretive framework to the text. . . and always emerge with a hard and fast answer. But I have attempted such an approach in the past, and in hindsight – I can see places where I was off-base. Reading humbly and with others keeps me from giving up on understanding the text and it keeps me from assuming my subjective interpretation is right on point.

  • 3palominos

    FTA: “For me, self-reflective and self-aware reading is only possible when I ground myself in a diverse community.”

    The Word of God is not about “self” or even about others.

    • Lindsey Trozzo

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think I understand your point (the Word of God is bigger than us or our community), and I don’t necessarily disagree. For me, reading in community is not so that the community can control the Word of God – but rather so that others who are different than I am can make me more aware of my own flawed perception of what it might mean. It is because the Word of God is so big and complex that a diverse community, and a humble approach, are so important to me.

      • 3palominos

        The Spirit guides us into Truth.
        Not a diverse community.

        • Honest question: how do you know when you’ve heard from the Spirit?

          • 3palominos

            I Cor. 2:16
            2 Pet. 1:4
            John 17:17

            Regeneration imparts the mind of Christ and participation in the divine nature, renewing our minds and transforming us into Christ’s image.

          • Okay, but I meant practically, like in day-to-day life situations.

  • Mark K

    Lindsey, I love the humility you bring to the discussion. I’d be very interested in reading your dissertation. Hope you plan to publish it.

  • rvs

    When people try to escape the subjective (i.e., personhood), things tend to go haywire, at least in my experience. Hal from 2001 circumvented the subjective, for lack of a better phrasing, and that did not end well. The promulgators of a stoic hermeneutic designed to mine data from the Bible concern me for similar reasons.

    Thanks for the engaging reflection.

    Semi-related: I wonder how a non-propositional ethic operates. Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey comes to mind, for example.

    • Lindsey Trozzo

      I haven’t read A Sentimental Journey, but I’ll have to check it out! As far as how a non-propositional ethic works… it seems that it would be less systematized, more relational/communal, and deliberative.
      Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Andrew J. Schmutzer

    Lindsey, I appreciate your humility, at this season of your academic life. Scholars on both ends of the spectrum, young and old, can struggle cultivating the hermeneutical “2nd naivete” (as Brueggemann calls it).

    I’m committed to rhetorical criticism myself, so I noticed “conservative” was used about 5x. Regardless, as you continue in your academic journey, I encourage you to be aware of oppositional logic–the exclusion of the other. Because of your pedigree, you have insights into certain socio-religious communities, build bridges into them so you can be a voice of knowledge, lived-experience, and humility…which all interpretive communities need to cultivate.

    Love the Goldingay epigraph. Probably my favorite OT biblical theologian.

    • Lindsey Trozzo

      Andrew, thanks for this insight. I chose to utilize the term “conservative” so often where I might have used a more narrow term for a few reasons. Conservative is a broader designation, and one that is descriptive of a wide part of the spectrum rather than a specific label (fundamentalist, evangelical, etc.). While I’m sure I could have found a better way to refer to my background, this seems a neutral but accurate term that neither carried the negative connotation often associated with “fundamentalist” nor the ambiguous character of a term like “evangelical” that is used in vastly different ways by different people. I attempted to be self-reflective and descriptive of my own journey rather than making statements about a certain group as a whole, and I hope I accomplished that. If there is any exclusion of the “other” in this article, it was not intended.

      Thanks again.
      Lindsey

  • Dennis Hesselbarth

    Lindsey, thank you for your reflections here. I’ve had much the same kind of journey, but mediated through cross-cultural diversity. Living in other cultures brought into stark relief how much we each bring our own cultural filters into our understanding of the biblical texts. With much dismay, I could see how cultural filters and biases play a dominant role in hermeneutics. Some would argue we can’t sort out the “intended meaning” of a text due to our own biases coloring our understanding. I don’t think we have to go that far and surrender to complete subjectivity, but listening to diverse other’s understandings with much humility seems essential to counteract our personal filters. So carry on!

    • Lindsey Trozzo

      Thanks, Dennis!

  • MattB

    I think that as long as one holds or believes the fact that Jesus is God and that his resurrection is true, then everything else falls into place. Many times you see fundamentalists claiming that you must believe “x” about the Bible or certain doctrines or otherwise you’re not a Christian. On the otherside, you have staunch liberalism that ultimately denies the reality of Jesus’ Lordship and his resurrection and claims that all religions are equally true. I contend that both of these positions are not tenable. That’s why the resurrection of Jesus and his claims to divinity must be the anchor of the Christian faith or otherwise you will end up drifting away from truth.

    • Vic

      Matt:

      Apparently you have learned nothing from this series. Anytime you say, “as long as you believe X…” then you are already in a bad place.

      • MattB

        Vic, I don’t think you’ve read my entire post. I was merely pointing out the extreme sides of Christianity.

    • Lindsey Trozzo

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Matt.

      • MattB

        Thanks for your story Lindsey, I enjoyed it very much. In some ways, I kind of feel like you in that I have progressed a little in my views regarding the Bible. I like what you said here

        “o my “aha moments” aren’t necessarily about escapingconservative dogmatism.

        They are about escaping dogmatism on all sides.

        I would say I am experiencing an “aha evolution,” one still in progress, where I’m learning to identify my tendency to look to the Bible to affirm things I think I already know (rather than looking to the Bible to learn something new).

        This evolution is about learning to live somewhere in the middle, about becoming more comfortable saying, “I’m not sure.”

        I would say I am somewhere in the middle too sometimes on certain issues. I do think it is okay to say ” I don’t know” sometimes.

    • Daniel Fisher

      Well, I think it quite likely that most of those who committed atrocities during both the crusades and inquisition believed that Jesus was God and the resurrection was true…. but I think it is safe to say that there were numerous other very significant doctrines they lacked (such as loving their enemies?), which make me feel very justified stating that these villains were not Christians.
      I imagine we might agree that there is far more to it than simply Jesus is God and he rose from the dead…

      • MattB

        Daniel,

        Whether or not people have committed atrocities in the name of Christ should not interfere with the core facts of the Christian faith. Maybe there were true believers who were involved in the Crusades or inquisition. However, in doing so, they were acting inconsistent with the Christian faith. Works is a result of faith. We should want to do good and not evil. So being a Christian is much more than just believing those two things. I was just making the point that those two things are what anchor our faith or in other words, are what distinguish our faith as “objective” and true vs. other religious faiths.

  • Daniel Fisher

    I appreciate the candid description that freethinking and liberal individuals challenged your “principled self-importance and need to be right.” Self importance and a person’s need to be right is self-centered arrogance, wherever it appears. It has no place in the Christian community.

    However, I hope this is not meant to imply that it is the evangelical/conservative position which is inherently connected with the self-important “need to be right.” Sure, there are plenty of conservative evangelicals that are, and they (or “we”, when I find this in myself as well) need to repent of such. But we hold the beliefs that so many find “exclusionary” not because I need to feel important or need to be right, but because I believe this is God’s revealed truth, and because I care and weep and want to reach out to give the same grace and joy of forgiveness for those who, “though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

    • Lindsey Trozzo

      Hey Daniel,
      I appreciate your concern in this area, and I was careful to be self-descriptive in my post rather than making general comments about any group. That’s one of the reasons I included the bit about how more education, from a different perspective wasn’t really a “cure” for me. Rather, I found letting go of my pursuit of certainty possible once I welcomed diverse perspectives.

  • Jeff Y

    LIndsey – just got round to reading this. Your story was one of my favorites in the series so far and one with which I resonated in my own experience. Reading outside my own ‘tradition’ has been of great value (the opposite seems to me to be yield a kind of unhealthy spiritual inbreeding). A former mentor of mine often noted the importance of reading outside our own ‘boundaries.’ As good a student as he was, he used to say, “I’m not smart enough to know everything there is to know about the Bible. Other people who have studied have things they can teach me. … They ask different questions than we do. So because their perspective is different, they sometimes see things in the Bible that I hadn’t noticed before.” – And, I think, secondly, your point on “certainty” is vital. Lesslie Newbigin’s little book, Proper Confidence, is one I would add to your excellent list above. It really connects the Evangelical/Fundamentalist quest for certainty to the Enlightenment and how that belief certainty would be found ironically led to nihilism in the intellectual world. But, realizing there are a myriad of good, honorable, searching students – as deeply or even more deeply invested than I am – who disagree with me, should give me pause about my own certainties. So, humility, grace, and freedom to explore must be at the center of our relationships and we should hold our views tentatively (with open hands not closed). It would seem the one thing that disrupts this is the sense that I have all the answers and anything that differs is, therefore, heresy. We need what James K.A. Smith describes as “the experience of interpretive difference – experiencing interpretations that differ from the interpretations of those who thought themselves to be in possession of the one true interpretation.” Thanks.

    • Lindsey Trozzo

      Thanks so much, Jeff. I will probably pick up Proper Confidence today!

  • Jesse Richards

    You have a great story here Lindsey. Thanks for sharing!

  • Gregg Ten Elshof

    Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post Lindsey. It may interest/encourage you to know that your post is being circulated among the research fellows at Biola’s Center for Christian Thought where our theme this year is “Intellectual Virtue and Civil Discourse” and our topic for this week is the virtue of open mindedness. I think you’re exactly right about the centrality of diverse community for the development of genuine open mindedness.

    • Lindsey Trozzo

      So cool. I’d love to hear more about what comes from that discussion. Thanks for sharing!