Curiosity, Discipline, and Flexiblity: Lessons from Dr. Elizabeth Shively

January 30, 2024
Dr. Shively stands in front of the a large globe in Truett Seminary's foyer. She is smiling in a blue blouse.

Elizabeth E. Shively. PhD, serves as professor of Christian Scriptures at Truett Seminary. As a trained musician, Dr. Shively's career pivoted towards life in academics after taking a summer Greek course, and in an interview about her academic history and desire to teach, Shively highlighted the values of curiosity, discipline, and flexibility within Biblical scholarship. 


Tell us a little about yourself and your background. 

I'm the oldest of three sisters. I grew up in a Christian family. I don't remember a day I didn't know the Lord, but I have this early memory of when my parents moved our family from Texas to Pennsylvania, and we lived with my grandmother for half a year. I did half of first grade there. My mother says that I had come home from a neighborhood lady's storytelling time and said that I had trusted Jesus as my Savior. I don't remember that, but there was a turning point in Texas. I went from not having a sense of who God was to being back in Pennsylvania and having that sense. So something happened. 

I grew up in the Episcopal church, with both sides of my family being Episcopalians. My grandfather was a deacon in the Episcopal church. Eventually, my husband and I married in this Episcopal church where my parents got married and where my grandparents were buried. So, surprise-surprise, I went to the University of the South (Sewanee) and studied vocal performance as a music major.

After graduating, I taught kindergarten music and quickly learned that it was not my goal. During this time, I spoke with my uncle, who was ordained in the Episcopal church and was the associate chaplain at Sewanee while I was there. He and my aunt had gone to Gordon-Conwell in the 70s. They told me I should consider attending Gordon-Conwell since the seminary had just started a church music degree program. So I went, and I enrolled to start a church music degree. I directed the music at a Methodist church nearby in my first year there.

What was your theological education and journey like? Can you recall any major mentors, events, books, or advice that substantially impacted your calling or education? 

I studied voice, piano, and organ in the church music program. I learned about liturgy and things like that, and I thought, while I'm here, I might as well take Greek. I thought it would just be a good experience. So, I took Greek with a man named Scott Hafemann, and it changed my life.

He was a fantastic teacher and so devotional. If anyone else had taught me Greek, it might not have affected me as much. But he did, so it did. I loved learning the language for all the new things, possibilities, and ways of seeing the New Testament it offered me. So, I switched to the Master of Divinity program. After completing my MDiv, I stayed at Gordon-Conwell to work on a Master of Theology, as well. Greg Beale was another influential voice during this time. 

While in Boston, I began working for Park Street Church. After 6 years of ministry there, I started a PhD at Emory University in Atlanta. I did my PhD under Luke Timothy Johnson, who has impacted many of the ways I think about research and teaching.

Can you describe the moment you understood your calling or explain the journey towards your vocational passion? 

I realized a calling to teach while working as a TA, helping fellow MDiv students with their Greek coursework. I enjoyed something about those 'aha moments' so much;  I could see lights turning on in moments of discovery with students. That was exciting to me, so I stayed on to do the ThM and ended up meeting my husband at Gordon-Conwell.

What about Truett made you want to hold a teaching position here?

I've always wanted to teach in a seminary. I've always wanted to prepare people for ministry. While in my former position at St Andrews, I worked in the Divinity School, so I taught undergrads and some theology students, but it was different from coming to the seminary. It affected the way I taught and researched. I'm so grateful for a place like St Andrews because it pushed me into scholarship, networking, and administrative roles that I never thought I would or should have. It pressed me to be a certain kind of scholar that I never would've been. So I'm grateful, but I also feel like now is the time for my calling or a dream. My desire to teach in a seminary setting and prepare people for ministry has taken over 20 years, so I'm finally in the place I've always wanted to be. While getting here may have been a circuitous route, this is the right time and place to do what I've always wanted. Some people have questioned why I would leave a prestigious institution like St Andrews to come to a place like Truett. But I think I'm called to be here. 

What are your biggest areas of study? 

Well, I studied the gospels, especially Mark. I can't get out of Mark. I've been in Mark since I finished my PhD in 2010. I just can't get out of Mark. I would like to and plan to do some Pauline research. In terms of approach, I mainly use literary studies to read the Bible. Influenced by my PhD supervisor, Luke Timothy Johnson, I often think about reading literarily and theologically, emphasizing biblical narratives and close readings of the text. For me, it's about recognizing what kind of texts they are. What kinds of literary works are they? And then, let's read them in terms of ancient literary criticism. My interest in the gospels has always been to think about how narratives can perform a normative function for individuals and communities. Narratives can help us to know in ways that the sciences cannot. 

My research tries to answer some of my burning questions about the narrative of Mark. Why does the gospel text look the way it does? And what effect does this have? How do these narratives reflect early Christian experience and shape Christian identity? How does Mark's narrative as a story work to model life for human beings? How does it function as a way of being and acting in the world? What does Mark's Christology and discipleship have to do with each other?

In our culture, the sciences have this privileged position for obtaining knowledge and determining truth. While some things benefit from being propositional, let's not just reduce everything to a proposition. The Bible employs different modes of knowing, one of which is narrative. How do narratives and gospel narratives communicate things like grace, forgiveness, judgment, promise, blessing, and love? These are truths that cannot be accessed by scientific knowledge.

What is your favorite work that you have published?

One thing that's been helpful for me is to look at what's happening in Hebrew Bible scholarship. I have realized that, unfortunately, there is a disconnect between New and Old Testament scholars on how the biblical writers used their scriptures. New Testament writers are not paying attention to what's going on in the Hebrew Bible scholarship, but this scholarship opens up so much room for answering some of the questions about how the New Testament writers existed and why they're using their scriptures in the way that they did.

I had the privilege of assisting David Lincicum and Matthias Henze in their book, Israel Scriptures in Early Christian Writings, and I wrote the essay on Mark's use of Israel's scriptures. I loved writing this entry because it brought together many things I had already been thinking about and allowed me to distill some methodological issues about Mark's doing with his scriptures.

I also have to mention a wonderful opportunity I had to write an essay with a former doctoral student of my own. His name is Max Botner, and he was one of my first doctoral students at St Andrews. He now has become a friend and colleague. It's been rewarding to see him start as a doctoral student, write an excellent dissertation, and then go on to continue writing. We were able to work on this essay together, and it has also just come out. It's called "Jesus and Oneness in the Synoptic Gospels." In it, we look at all three synoptic gospels and their presentation of unity, especially looking at the use of the shema. Throughout the book, our essay and others look at how early Christians understood unity, what it meant to be unified, and to what extent unity means dividing from an outside group. 

Can you explain a little about your pedagogy for the classroom?

I've borrowed much of my classroom pedagogy from a former mentor, Scott Hafemann. He always had on his syllabi and often said the old proverb, "If you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day. But if you give them a fishing rod, you feed them for a lifetime." As a teacher, you're not there simply to deliver or feed information because that only teaches students to be second-hand thinkers. What good is it if you constantly rely on other people's work? But by giving students a fishing rod and saying I will teach you how to think, they can become first-hand thinkers. We have to give students the tools to analyze the text. Once they have the tools to think about the text, they have the tools to read closely. Then, they can not only do their own analysis but also critically evaluate what other people write and say. This paradigm has influenced a lot of my thoughts on what it means to teach and learn.

As for the kinds of assignments I give, and how I run a classroom, I find writing important. My classrooms are not just about me lecturing but also trying to let students engage and get involved with the content. To me, writing is thinking. So I make students write all the time. Even if I don't see the writing, I expect my students to write and to take ownership of their thinking through writing. Taking ownership of your education requires writing because students will only become deliberate, skillful readers of the Bible if they can articulate their engagement with the text well. 

Ultimately, my goal is for students to take ownership of their own education rather than relying on me to tell them what to think or tell them what to do.  

How do you approach research and publication? What are topics or passions you are interested in doing more work on, or is there an area of study you think more work needs to be done in?

Curiosity is the biggest thing driving my research. Sometimes it can be bad because I'll be in the middle of something, and then something else will pique my interest, and then I go down this rabbit hole. So, it has to be a combination of curiosity and discipline. All my serious research is pushed by questions I can't immediately answer. If there's a question I can't answer, then I want to go there and figure it out. The other thing that drives me in terms of questions is conventional answers that aren't satisfying.

I'm passionate about finishing a few projects. One of them is a book on the genre of the gospels. I am unsatisfied by the conventional answer, or what has become the status quo way of seeing the gospels, which is as Greco-Roman biography. I think that's wrong, so I'm setting out to say something different about that.

What are things in Waco that have made the city feel like home? 

Moving; it is so much, you know. The move has been complicated. There are things about America that make us feel at home because we feel like we're Americans, but then there are things we miss about Scotland and our home there. Of course, there are American things we enjoy, like going to Target. I mean, who doesn't love to get your groceries, a set of headphones, a basketball, a pair of glasses, and mascara all in one trip? You can't do that in other countries. There are other little things I didn't realize how much I'd missed, such as the little lever on the handle of a gas nozzle that keeps the trigger engaged when pumping gas. They don't have that in the UK. And, of course, we've missed the food. We especially love Mexican food. You just can't get good Mexican food in the UK. And barbecue. Oh my gosh, yes, barbecue. So, the Tex-Mex and the barbecue! We're all about that. In some ways, Waco reminds me of Scotland. There are obviously differences, but the local Saturday morning farmers market and walks in Cameron Park remind me of the community and nature in Scotland. 

If you were to summarize the discipline of theological work into a key piece of advice, what would it be?

Our discipline and scholarship have changed over a number of years, and now there are so many people who want to go on for further studies. There are so few jobs, so my advice is to make sure you love what you're doing and that you can't see yourself doing anything else.

Look at Paul. He's called to be this missionary to the Gentiles. He ends up in jail. This work can be tough. Who knows where we will end up! I would only recommend this work if this is your burning desire and you must learn more about it. You have to be curious and disciplined with both courage and intellectual ability. The discipline part is especially important. You have to love to write. You have to love to read and write.

And then, if you go on and do it, be flexible. We need to be flexible about what God is calling us to do. Be full of desire and be full of flexibility. We need scholarships for our pastors, not just our professors. We need people worldwide teaching in places that are crying out for teachers. 

Regardless of where you end up, I would boil my advice down to: you have to be full of desire, burning desire, and you've got to be flexible.