Michal Beth Dinkler: the dance of interpretation and meaning

Ray Waddle

The art of ballet and the art of biblical interpretation – not your everyday dance partners. Yet they share certain aspirations and challenges. Each requires discipline and stamina. Each attends intensely to details of technique and communication. Each must endure the public harrumphs of the critics.

Michal Beth Dinkler can speak to the exhilarations of both. She joins the Yale Divinity faculty this fall as assistant professor of New Testament. There was a time when she did serious ballet training and considered a career in dance. She almost quit high school in California in order to enroll at the renowned Joffrey Ballet School in New York. But she stayed in school, and destiny showed her a different path: literary studies, then biblical criticism. Her work today involves introducing students to the adventure of discerning New Testament texts and meanings. She keeps up with ballet now for exercise and fun.

“I learned a lot of life lessons from ballet – the discipline, the hard work,” she says. “If we fell down, the teacher would tell us: ‘that’s progress!’ I try to remind myself of that. In scholarship our arguments are not always immediately accepted. We may stumble. But it’s good to remember that we’re always moving toward progress, toward some greater goal.”

Dinkler comes to YDS from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, having earned a Harvard Th.D. in 2012. She brings a deep background in literary theory and an interest in narrative—two themes of her New Testament teaching. She loves bringing Bible students to the brink of discovering literary dimensions and new paths of understanding for themselves.

“It’s so appealing and exciting in the classroom when a transformation happens,” she says.

Her scholarly interests emerged in college – an enthusiasm for the big fictional narratives of the 19th century, especially Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, their storytelling language and rhetorical techniques. Raised Presbyterian Church (USA) in Orange County, CA, she stayed away from biblical studies because “that was my dad’s thing.” Her father, Jerry Camery-Hoggatt is a professor of narrative theology and New Testament at Vanguard University in California.

Dinkler received a B.A. and an M.A. degree in English literature from Stanford University. She then earned an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In grad school, she started noticing that the literary elements she loved – plot, characterization, craft, irony – defined not just the works of George Eliot or William Thackeray or Emily Brontë but were embedded in the Gospel accounts of Jesus too.

One day, as she was reading the Gospel of Mark, a passage lit up her imagination – the scene from Mark 14, the interrogation of Jesus by the chief priests and elders, who taunt him by saying, “Prophesy!” The narrative abruptly switches to a nearby courtyard, where Peter proceeds to deny Jesus three times – just as Jesus prophesied that Peter would. The deft, ironic juxtaposition of the two scenes was a revelation to Dinkler.

“I remember the first time I saw it that way – a form of communicating truth that has to do with how the story gets told,” she says.

“Features we think of as literary are at work in the New Testament if we pay attention. We can see the writer’s careful use of narrative, structure, craft. Most readers don’t necessarily approach the Bible from that perspective, but when they do they get excited. It gives a fresh view of truth.”

In the classroom, Dinkler’s approaches to scripture keep an eye on a larger ethical dimension.

“The skills involved in reading scripture with literary eyes can be transferred to life,” she says. “My hope is that students learn to become thoughtful, critical readers of the world around them. The way we approach texts can shape the way we understand how God works in the world.”

She will team-teach the Intro to New Testament during the 2014-15 academic year, with Harold Attridge in the fall semester and Adela Collins in the spring.

Dinkler is the author of Silent Statements: Narrative Representations of Speech and Silence in the Gospel of Luke (De Gruyter, 2013) and has contributed a chapter on the Acts of the Apostles to the upcoming one-volume New Testament commentary produced by Fortress Press.

She is well aware how central and controversial the Bible continues to be in American debates around politics, cultural wars, and jurisprudence – a perennial showdown of competing ways to read the sacred book. She says it’s important for all to acknowledge that there can be no approaching any scriptural passage without interpreting what we are reading. There is no single, unassailable meaning. That’s as it should be.

“We all import assumptions and experiences into the reading,” she says. “There’s no such thing as finding the meaning without interpretation. My goal is to pay attention to the decisions we make as we read and interpret, and articulate the reasons for our choices.”

The very existence of the New Testament itself, she says, is evidence of historical tensions between attitudes toward Jesus. The diversity of the canon suggests disagreements between those who shaped it. Without those disagreements, there might not have been a scripture.

“That’s one of the reasons the Bible is so powerful – it provides so many perspectives. Because people disagreed, it was necessary to include all these many viewpoints.”

The prospect of virtually infinite interpretation – the ever-renewing dance between text and reader and community – is not to be feared.

“It’s good news that God gives us this material even if people disagree about it. We can venture into it with respect and good will. Interpretation is challenging, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it on. God doesn’t want us to regurgitate what’s in the texts but wrestle with them. God gave us our minds to use them.”

July 15, 2014