Crux Sola: An Interview with Christopher W. Skinner
by Allan R. Bevere
December 22, 2014
Today's interview is with Christopher Skinner, who is Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Mount Olive in North Carolina. I got to know Christopher when we became contributors to a recent book published by InterVarsity Press, Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. Chris blogs at Crux Sola (along with Nijay Gupta). I have found him to be a careful scholar and a person of deep and questioning Christian faith. If you have not read anything he has written, you need to do so.
Let the interview begin.
ARB: Tell us a little about yourself.
CWS: Well, that's a little open-ended! I guess I'll start with the most important things first. I have been married to my wife, Tara, since 1997 and our lives together revolve around caring for our three children, Christopher (14), Abby (12), and Drew (9). The four of them are the very best things in my life.
When I am not with my family, I serve as Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Mount Olive in North Carolina, where I have taught since 2010. I have a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. (2007), where I was privileged to spend significant time with a "who's who" of NT scholars, including Francis J. Moloney, Frank Matera, Joseph Fitzmyer, and Raymond Collins.
I'm also a huge fan of the NFL franchise based in Washington, D.C., as well as the Baltimore Orioles…..which essentially means that I have been disappointed every football and baseball season for the better part of two decades.
ARB: What has been your faith journey, thus far? What are your core beliefs as a Christian?
CWS: I have talked about this a bit elsewhere. I was raised in a church culture that was quite conservative. That conservatism included how literally we interpreted the Bible and extended to social and political conservatism as well. While that foundation served me well in some respects throughout my youth and early adulthood, I ultimately found it to be far too restrictive in too many ways.
However, in that context I began to recognize something of a "calling" when I was about 14 years old, though I refused to acknowledge it until I was about 19. I guess you can say that I began to pursue that calling in my early 20s though it looks much different today than it did back then and certainly much different than I expected it to look when I first began the journey.
As far as my "core beliefs" go, I would say that I confess the Apostles' Creed (which we actually recite weekly at my church), even if there are some things in the creed that give me pause. I guess my core beliefs are somewhat Barthian in that I believe Jesus Christ must be the focus of a uniquely Christian faith.
ARB: How have you progressed as a scholar? What did you believe that you no longer can?
CWS: I would say that my progression as a scholar has been steadily incremental during this first full decade of my teaching career. Of course, the most dramatic growth took place during my doctoral program. Compared to most of my colleagues and friends, I had a fairly atypical experience. While many are able to devote themselves solely to a course of study during their doctoral program, I did not have that opportunity. I was married with children and serving on the full-time pastoral staff at a church in Baltimore while working on my Ph.D. at Catholic University. Though this schedule was demanding and created tremendous work (and stress) for me, it was an ideal situation in many ways.
The rigorous emphasis on developing competency in Greek, Hebrew, Coptic, Aramaic, Syriac, etc.-- which was a real hallmark of the program at CUA-- along with a focus on staying close to the text, helped me develop in more ways than I could have ever imagined. When you are that close to a text, its original language(s), and all the trappings of its interrelated cultures, previously "clear" theological formulations and doctrinal commitments can easily become very messy.
This caused problems for my faith but also opened up other vistas that I never imagined. On the other hand, there was a real sense of urgency in my mind each week, to consider in fresh ways the significance of these texts for the community of faith I was serving. All of this made me much more sensitive to both ancient and modern contexts.
My progression as a scholar continues but it's not as dramatic. It helps to explain it like this: when you see your children every day, you don't get a true impression of how much they're actually growing. But when you look back at pictures from the previous year, you get a real sense of their growth and how dramatic it actually is. Every so often I'll read something I wrote a few years before or listen to something I previously taught or preached, and only then do I get a feel for how I've progressed.
If I'm being completely honest with you, there are many things that I no longer believe, though I'm not sure it would be helpful to list all of them here. Perhaps it will be helpful for me to express it this way: There have been times when certain biblical texts spoke to me and edified me in clear and substantive ways-- ways that essentially determined major trajectories in my life. Today, those texts do not (and in most cases, cannot) speak to me with that same voice from the past. There's an inevitable sense of mourning and even disillusionment associated with that reality, though I am also driven to discover the new voices and different ways through which the text can speak. These days I find that I don't have a lot of answers, just a lot more questions.
As I get older, my parents have gotten much smarter(!), and my mother has actually been immensely helpful as I wrestle with these issues. She's a very keen thinker with a great sensitivity toward the fragility of the human experience. I often bounce these things off of her to see if she has arrived at any more clarity than I have. Even if I don't arrive at answers, I find edification in the very conversation.
ARB: What have you written and published. What are you looking to write in the future?
CWS: My specific interests lie in the areas of Jesus and the gospel traditions. I have written or edited six books, all but one of which are devoted to issues in the interpretation of the gospels. I have just finished a manuscript for an introductory level textbook entitled, Reading John, which is set to be published in the Cascade Companions series early next year:
I am currently working on two projects, both of which are under contract. The first is a book I'm co-authoring with my blog mate, Nijay Gupta entitled, Across the Spectrum of New Testament Studies (Baker, 2017). That book aims to present an accessible and balanced introduction to the "spectrum" of viewpoints on key issues in New Testament studies. For each subject, between two and five positions are outlined, addressing the strengths and weaknesses of each stance.
The second project is an edited volume entitled, Johannine Ethics: The Moral World of the Gospel and Epistles of John (Fortress, 2017). Once these two projects are completed, I hope to write a few things for a wider audience than just students and scholars in the field of New Testament studies. I would like to address bigger questions for a much broader readership.
ARB: Too many persons, unfortunately think faith and scholarship are mutually exclusive. How do you bring the two together?
CWS: I don't think there's any formula for living in the midst of the tension that is created by the messy conclusions of biblical scholarship juxtaposed with the sometimes "tidy" world of faith commitments. I will admit that it is not easy for me. I often find sermons intellectually dishonest and condescending, which can make the tension even more unbearable. I have told my wife over and over that so often I feel like the father in Mark 9 who exclaims, "I believe. Help my unbelief."
I also think it is important to strive for intellectual honesty at every turn and admit when a belief either no longer makes sense or is no longer useful in light of what we are learning about the Bible and the world around us. In my thinking about theology I rely a lot upon the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. What I believe has to make sense in the contexts of reason, Scripture, tradition, and experience.
ARB: As a scholar and a churchman, what would you like to say to the church in general?
CWS: I would love for churches to stop baptizing their political ideologies in the name of Christianity and mining the pages of the Bible for proof texts that will support their political views and affiliations. Recently a study was released that found that an overwhelming majority of Christians in the United States were not opposed to torture. This leads me to wonder, does Christianity conceive of Jesus as the Prince of Peace or the Purveyor of Preemptive Justice? There's a lot more I could say here, but let’s fix one thing at a time.
ARB: If you could attend your ideal church, how would it look?
CWS: I have always found this to be such a difficult question. If we are to believe the accounts we read in the NT, Jesus was a very counter-cultural, non-institutional figure. So a major problem with ecclesiastical expressions of Christianity is that they build entire institutions with their own intentionally normative culture(s).
Ideally, I would love to be a part of an inclusive community that takes Jesus seriously. Too often in western churches the things we should take literally (like turning the other cheek, praying for our enemies) are spiritualized while things like "being forgiven so that we can go to heaven" (never explicitly mentioned in the NT) are literalized to the point of becoming the only basis of faith.
Also, I grew up in a Baptist church and there was always lots of food, so I guess an ideal church would also have an abundant supply of fresh, flaky biscuits. :-)
ARB: Thanks Chris for your time. If you would like to interact with Dr. Skinner, please visit his blog, Sola Crux.