The Time for Good Fruit: Getting to Know Dr. Jenny Matheny
Truett Seminary is home to many passionate faculty members dedicated to providing an exceptional theological experience for students while engaging in meaningful research afforded to them, being embedded in Baylor University, an R-1 research institution.
As a new member of the Truett family, Jennifer (Jenny) Matheny, PhD, associate professor of Christian Scriptures, is diving into this culture while bringing her own perspectives and disciplines to support students and further her research.
In a recent conversation with Matheny, we asked her a few questions about her background and work.
Tell us about your theological education journey. Can you recall any significant mentors, events, books, or advice that substantially impacted your calling?
"One of my most influential professors was Iain Provan. As I was finishing my comprehensive exams, he made a statement that I tell my students now. He said, 'One of the gifts of theological education is that it encourages you to look over the edge and realize it's not that scary. And, when presented with ideas that don't quite sit right, these concepts allow us to articulate our views and reframe the conversations in a new way rather than shrinking back or getting defensive.’
I often tell my students that their voices in this area matter, and when something sticks with them and doesn't let them go, it may just be an invitation for them to contribute to the field.”
What about Truett Seminary made you want to hold a teaching position here?
"Truett, being part of an R-1 institution, is incredibly valuable for professors like me who seek to do research that ultimately informs their teaching. Another encouragement for shifting to Truett was its collegiality. The experience of work here is notarized by incredible colleagues who support me and want to see me succeed. We cheer one another on in all our research areas through beautiful generosity. Lastly, a wonderful aspect of Truett is that it is a seminary that focuses on the whole person. With spiritual development, academic excellence, and social connectedness, this learning community equips students for gospel ministry in many forms. I have been so excited about Truett's emphasis on imagining ways to engage ministry creatively, as evidenced in the Faith and Sports Institute, the Theology Ecology and Food Justice program, diverse grants, preaching initiatives, the Black Church studies program, and the Wesley House of Studies. Things are happening, and I am honored to be part of this vision and the rich, diverse voices that shape this vision."
What are you most excited to bring to Truett?
"I hope a passion for learning and a renewed relationship with the Old Testament, one that stirs up interest and excitement. I know how a renewed love of Old Testament theology can profoundly inform teaching and preaching. I want students to explore ways this theological education may integrate into our daily lives.
I am also excited to model what it means to embrace your uniqueness in your calling and to trust the spaces God invites you into, even if they feel uncomfortable because of limitations that a faith tradition may have placed upon you (such as being a woman in leadership ministries). It is essential to learn to be more comfortable in uncomfortable spaces because you may be called to motivate a renewed vision, one of vibrancy and spiritual health for the wider Church. These may be new spaces for a student but needed spaces for what they will be called to do and to become in the communities they will serve and share in."
What are your biggest areas of study? What topics does your work commonly discuss?
"Everything I do revolves around one central calling in my life: to share the heart (the love) of God. This love is profoundly relational and transformative, full of potential. This takes shape in various areas with my research, writing, and teaching.
If I choose a 'topic' my work discusses, it would be complex texts in the Old Testament. So, whether it's the problematic gendered violence in Judges 19-21 or the intense emotion of anger in Jeremiah 6, I hope for a reading that will help us make a bit more sense of the genre, difficult metaphors, and ultimately, the core values within an ancient text. If we grapple better with these texts, it will encourage our confidence as readers, teachers, and preachers.
It may feel circuitous in its route (spanning from violence and trauma to dress hermeneutics), but I hope journeying in the Old Testament will yield a destination that draws us closer to the Lord, expectant for what we may find. For students, this kind of work is best done at a seminary where you are in community with others on a similar journey, and you can ask honest questions together."
What is your favorite work that you have published?
"The first is my work, Judges 19-21 and Ruth: Canon as a Voice of Answerability. Many commentaries mention that specifically, Judges 19-21 and Ruth are in conversation, but they do not detail how. My work provides a case study looking at key lexical and thematic connections to demonstrate how the text of Ruth speaks for the gendered silence and violence at the end of Judges, offering a voice of 'answerability,' Mikhail Bakhtin's term for an ethical response. Ruth seems idyllic, but there is violence humming in the book's background. My work teases the rich array of voices, both the loud and the quiet, in these two texts.
Another favorite work of mine is a collaborative chapter, "The Raging Prophet: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as a pathway forward through pain." Initially developed in the late 1980s by Dr. Steven C. Hayes, ACT is a 'third wave' cognitive behavioral therapy. Reading Jeremiah through the lens of ACT means attending to the values that drive the prophet's emotional experience and expression and brings the realization that the expressions of emotion are reflections of the core values of the prophet, God, and the community. Rather than the portrayal of a vengeful, vindictive, arrogant God who unleashed Israel into exile, a focus on core values reveals a God who longs for people who are faithful to their promises, for truth to be spoken, for the poor to be cared for, the oppressed to have justice, and who gives foreigners a home. These core values remain intact into exile and beyond. Reading Jeremiah's acts of rage, weeping, and woe through the framework of ACT reveals that emotions serve a purpose.”
What is your pedagogy for the classroom?
"In seminary-level courses, students are bringing a wealth of life experience, previous research from their undergraduate institutions, and the echoes of their past professors, so when we engage in class, I desire to teach and guide, yes, but I more so want to facilitate discussions, where we learn so much from one another. Even our unanswered questions shape us. In the unique context of a Seminary education, the Holy Spirit is ever present as the one who reveals and teaches in and beyond the classroom (John 16:5-16). I am always mindful of this presence and humbled to journey with students as they learn the tools for exegetical and theological study with the word of God, which is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). Through careful curriculum planning, opportunities for growth in areas of intellectual and spiritual formation will be an intentional part of the learning process.
My teaching style invites an active learner-centered approach. I have found that students critically engage and integrate material when they are active participants in the learning process. I do not expect us to figure out every issue or complexity but encourage us to think together as we explore them, especially when it comes to matters in an ancient text with a rich theological message. I hope to build a sense of wonder and interest that challenges previous assumptions.”
How do you approach research and publication?
"I approach research with an openness to the journey. It often starts with 'I wonder if. . .' kinds of thoughts. An image. An idea. I often sit with it for a time and then feel prompted to flesh it out at some point. I also enjoy testing ideas at conferences, like throwing spaghetti to a wall and seeing what sticks! This is where having a great community of scholars can be so beneficial to help ask more questions and steer you in helpful directions. So much of what we do is in isolation, but these past few years, I have been part of a research group on dress and the Hebrew Bible. This has been wonderful! A recent edited volume from this group has begun to flesh out a dress hermeneutic, and this is an area I see more work needing to be done and is being done."
What are things in Waco that have made the city feel more like home?
"The Baylor community is so incredibly warm and welcoming. Invitations to dinners at colleagues and new friends' homes have made Waco feel like home. Also, Baylor's various amenities and community programs have helped me integrate into the culture. I especially love paddle boarding at Pullin Family Marina."
If you had to summate theological work into a key piece of advice, what would it be?
"Theological work is about humility. It is less about answers and more about learning what questions to ask. As I think about my work as an Old Testament scholar, strong theological thinking springs from a place of deep trust in the Lord. Being anchored to the love and goodness of God enables me to sit with the questions. German poet Ranier Maria Rilke expresses this sentiment well in his Book of Hours excerpt:
'I love you, gentlest of Ways
Who ripened us as we wrestled with you.
You, the great homesickness we could never shake off,
You, the forest that always surrounded us,
You, the song we sang in every silence.
You dark net threading through us,
You began yourself so greatly
On that day when you began us–
And we have so ripened in your sunlight,
Spreading far and firmly planted–
That now in all people, angels, madonnas,
You can decide your work is done.
Let your hand rest on the rim of Heaven now
And mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.'
Generative theological dialogue allows for wrestling and ripening with hospitable hearts together. Psalm 1 reminds us that those who delight in Torah are like trees that will bear their fruit in season (Psalms 1:3a). My hope for all of us at Truett, as we do theological work together, is to bear really good fruit."