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Dr. Steed Davidson: An Unsettler of the Texts

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Dr. Steed Davidson will begin as McCormick’s newest Bible Professor in the Fall of 2015

In the fall of 2015, McCormick Theological Seminary will welcome Dr. Steed Davidson to its already impressive faculty.  Dr. Davidson will serve as Associate Professor of the Hebrew Bible, bringing a postcolonial lens to Biblical scholarship.  Recently, the CURE sat down with Dr. Davidson to talk about his work, his scholarly pursuits, and why he’s looking forward to coming to McCormick.

How would you describe your analytic lens?

I tend to work out of post-colonial analysis, which focuses on geo-political power and considerations.  I don’t leave it at the geopolitical because this makes post-colonialism becomes a non-human abstract.  I try to connect these larger ideas to other forms of power and oppression…For instance, we can look at British Colonialism through a Biblical lens.  In First Kings, Ahab takes a vineyard from Naboth [1 Kings 21:1-16], which parallels the colonialists grab for land.  Compare that story with the settlement of the Virginia colony and how the British appropriated land. What in their Biblical and theological traditions led to that kind of exercise of power? What made it acceptable and normal?

[Post-colonialism] is not simply summed up by the explanations of known hegemonies, but also connected to different types of bodies.  I’m interested in how nations become embodied, how they become gendered and racialized, and how those embodiments inform our relations with one another.  For instance, when we look at the language of conquest, we can see that it is gendered. Nations that are invaded are usually gendered female and the invading or conquering nation is usually gendered male, both in the Bible and in our current political conversations. What implications does this have for our personal relationships?  When we bring this sensibility to bear on the Bible, we can see how these ideas filtered into how [ancient] Israel treated women and outsiders.

If I were pushed to identify with a particular theological focus, I would align best with liberationist theology.  I say liberationist instead of liberation because they are slightly different.  I am interested in the liberation of individuals as well as entire groups of people.  I shy away from ‘liberal theology’ because it’s become a rather dangerous term.  When we look at the geopolitical implications of liberal thought, we see that it can be quite destructive because liberal ideas and agendas are presented as the only alternative to more conservative ideas and fundamentalist theologies, which is not true.

What are some of the ideas that you and your students explore in the classroom?

I am most interested in this question: If every person’s identity, claimed and imposed, is equally valid and every individual is equally called by God, then how can both the oppressor and the oppressed find freedom in God?

What I try to bring into each of my courses is a sense of unsettling the normative.  The Bible is an unsettled and unsettling book, full of self-contradictions. I want my students to see how open-ended it is, how unfinished the narrative is.  I want my students to engage with the text as it moves from one generation to the next and speaks to the situation of the world in whatever time and place we find it.  I also want my students to engage in deep thought on the nature of power.  How is the Bible used to empower? To disempower? How is the Bible, and its many interpretations, used to increase the power and influence of the Church?

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Dr. Davidson challenges his students to become “unsettled” in their reading and analysis of Scripture

Can you describe some of the previous courses that you’ve taught?

The first course I ever taught was called Texts of Reconstruction.  We explored how texts shaped Jewish identity in a post-exilic context.  We can look at these texts as an example of how minorities function and define themselves within a foreign, dominant culture.  We can also see how minority thought is often co-opted by the majority.  I’ve taught introductory courses on Isaiah and Jeremiah.  In those courses, we situate the text with the context of Imperialism and discuss the dangers of Empire today.  Liberals often take on this mantle as saviors of the world, but this is simply a continuation of Empire in a different form.

I taught another course on the Book of Judges, focusing on women and power.  The course looked at the female characters in Judges—named and unnamed—and what their stories tell us about the society the book was written in.  With the exception of Jael and Deborah, the women in Judges do not have happy fates: they are dismembered, murdered, and raped.  What was going on at the time to make these experiences normative? How do we link women’s experience in the modern world with these texts? Unfortunately, women are still victims of horrific violence, and we must understand why we as societies accept it as normal. We looked not only at the Book of Judges, but also Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which also struggles with the normalization of gendered violence.

Why did you want to come teach at McCormick?

This will be a real change for me, one that I am very much looking forward to.  When I visited McCormick, and from what I’ve read and heard, it seems like to a certain extent there is no single majority.  There will always be a center and margins, but at McCormick racial/ethnic or gender balances in the community look quite different than other places where I have worked.  I’ll be moving out of a context that presumes one dominant identity in theological discourse to a context that makes room for multiple identities.  [At McCormick] Ideas and constructs like race are not only talked about in a very particular and abstract form; they are discussed in a very real way that comes out of lived experience.  This is a teaching context that is very attractive.

You will be giving the Zenos Lecture this year which is connected to McCormick’s Annual Theme of Peacebuilding in the City.  What will you speak about?

I haven’t written the lecture yet, it’s in March!  I have decided on a title: “Empires of Violence and Cities of Peace.” I have been thinking about Jeremiah 29, in which the author prescribes the things that make for peace in the city, in Babylon.  I would like to compare the city of Babylon in the text with a contemporary city maybe like Chicago.  How does this kind of peace come about while also recognizing the violence of Empire? In this text, it seems that peace comes from and is maintained by the violence of the Empire.  How do we reconcile that with our desire for peace?

Dr. Steed Davidson currently teaches at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.  You can read his faculty profile and check out some of his published work here.  And don’t forget to mark March 23 on your calendar, when Dr. Davidson will give McCormick’s annual Zenos Lecture!