Permission Granted: An Interview with Jennifer Grace Bird

I’m grateful to have met some great people while in seminary. One of those people is Jen Bird, who has spent her career engaging in difficult texts related to power, gender, and sexuality. She is bright, inquisitive, and bold. (She’s also a fun person to have living down the hall from you.) Her latest book, Permission Granted: Take the Bible into Your Own Hands is a daring look at Scripture, encouraging people in the pews to take a look at the hard passages even seminary students want to shy away from, and ask the questions. She trusts that the Bible- and God- can handle it. (I do, too.)

Our mutual friend Brian Hughes and I came up with some interview questions for her, and I’m delighted to share them with you below.

I love to hear how book ideas develop and become real. How did Permission Granted come to be?
I would say that the initial seed for this book was planted the first time I had a student in an introductory course say, “I wish I could share this with my family,” or “I wish I had been told this information sooner.” I heard that kind of a comment fairly often while teaching in North Carolina. But since this comment was offered by 18 year olds as well as by adult students, I knew that there was a huge need there that they were speaking about. It wasn’t just that twenty-somethings weren’t aware of this content, it was a general issue for many people, from various denominations.
The content for PG comes from my own experiences encountering this content for the first time, mostly in seminary, and from presenting it for dozens of introduction courses. When my institution had another round of faculty cuts, due to financial strains, and I was no longer employed, I decided to relocate to the Pacific NW, moved into a dear friend’s basement, did the laundry and other household chores in exchange for rent, and during the days I downloaded all of my thoughts on these topics. As you know, many of these conversations can be pretty intense, so I was grateful to be able focus on it for nine months.

As a professor, you are on the front lines of engagement with young people. How is their biblical IQ? Have you noticed a change over the years?
What I have noticed about students’ biblical IQ is that many of them are familiar with stories, in general, but most of them have not actually read the stories for themselves, or if they have it has usually been a long time, since. The exception to this is with the more conservative students who read the bible on a daily basis and often commit segments of it to memory. Those students are prepared to discuss intricacies of meaning and interpretation without even opening to the passage! In terms of whether this has changed in my short time as a professor, I would have to say, “No.” This has been a pretty consistent dynamic, whether in Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina or Oregon.

You devote a whole chapter to sexuality in the Bible, which is timely. If you could only share one insight with people about that chapter, what would it be?
That’s a tough one! You want me to choose just one? I have to say that I’ve been speaking a great deal outside of classrooms on the topic of sex, or more specifically on “biblical marriage,” over the past year or so, drawing primarily from that chapter. If I could offer one insight from the “Sex: Who, What and Why?” chapter it would be that sex, in the bible, is a way for a man to mark his territory (a woman who belongs to him) or it is about procreation. I think it is important to be honest about how different a “biblical” view of sex is from the range of meanings and roles it has for us, today. And since we live on an over-populated planet, it might be worth reconsidering emphasizing procreation so much. Just a thought.

What do you think holds people back from feeling like they have permission to engage their Bibles?
A lot of people have been told not to question what they read or the interpretations of the bible that they have been taught. So this permission that I’m trying to grant people is really only about encouraging others to engage their mind as well as their heart or faith. I’ve watched dozens of students physically relax when I tell them that their questions are not only allowed in my classes, but that they are encouraged, or that I’m not going to tell people what they should think or believe, just invite them to read and think for themselves. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me that as a child they were asked to stop asking questions or were told they were no longer welcome if they were going to ask such questions. As I mention in the book, since God gave us our brains, it seems to me that it is okay with God if we engage them, even as we read the bible.

What has surprised you the most in your discussions with people interacting with the material from this book?
I have been pleasantly surprised when people tell me that they’ve been looking for a book like this for years. I suppose on some level that shouldn’t surprise me, but that people have come right out and said it is an affirmation I could have only dreamt of. Some of the anonymous reviews of it on Amazon have been surprisingly affirming, along this vein.

How do you respond to someone who is hesitant to ask the hard questions when reading the Bible, who doesn’t trust themselves or you to guide that journey?

I love this question. I think this is such an important issue to raise. And one of the reviews I have seen has suggested that this book is not appropriate for young (new) believers. I get what that reviewer meant, and she and I had a respectful exchange about it. What I say to people is usually something along the lines of reminding them how influential the bible has been, and not just within the Church and its traditions but also in shaping much of Western ideas. If something so influential cannot handle honest engagement, then why trust it? I should say that I also understand why people are hesitant, and the last thing I want to do is to push someone who isn’t interested in this kind of engagement. To the issue of why they should trust me, I would say that, as in my classes, I am not telling you what to believe, I am simply offering information and primarily asking people to go read the stories for themselves. I am mostly sticking to a basic, “why don’t you read and think about this for yourself,” kind of an approach.

What discussions did you leave out of the book that you think will be included in the sequel?

The book I am planning on writing next will focus in on Paul: Before Reading Paul, Read This! It will be a similar kind of approach, trying to name some of the context or background issues that can help us understand Paul’s letters a bit better, but also inviting people to think about what they read in Paul’s letters.

It sometimes feels in your book that you are looking to shock or surprise the reader. Why emphasize the troublesome passages of the Bible so much in your discussions?

This is the question I think I most appreciate in this list of great questions. Thank you for asking it! I had someone ask me this past summer, after reading this book with a group of friends, if there is anything in the bible that I do like. That made me laugh, and I think that question is akin to this one, from you. The main reason for this focus on the troublesome passages is because I know so many people who claim to, “just believe the Bible,” or something along those lines. If someone is going to make this claim, I just want to be sure that they are well aware of all that is in there. In all honesty, when I hear someone make that claim, dozens of stories pop into my mind and I have to believe that this well-meaning person has simply not read those troublesome stories! Someone had to bring attention to them, so that is what I have done.

What do you think would change for Christians, for the Church, if everyone in the pews were to have granted themselves permission to read the Bible for themselves, as you encourage?
I think people might be invited into a faith with less certainty, but a faith that is more honest because of it. I say more honest because it would mean that the pat answers are no longer there, answers about “why bad things happen,” or about who Jesus was, or even who people think God is. I think all of these conversations become more complex, and thus ultimately more fulfilling and meaningful, when we read the bible in this kind of a way.

As you spend time with young people as they grapple with their understanding of the Bible, what gives you hope?
My answer is in your question: watching people grapple with these things, instead of relying solely on what they’ve been told, gives me great hope. Watching people want to make sense of things is incredibly inspiring.

And because I’m always curious to know: what book is on your nightstand, what music is playing in your car, and what’s the top show on your DVR?
On my nightstand: Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and a mystery novel by Elizabeth George. Playing in my car: a rotation between all classical and indie rock and a Brandi Carlisle  CD. Top show: I most recently watched the Sundance TV series, “Rectify,” and loved it, and I’m a Shonda Rhimes junkie. I love her shows!

Huge thanks to Jen for taking the time for this interview! If you’re looking for an important and challenging resource to up your biblical IQ, check out Permission Granted. You can find out more about Jen, Permission Granted and her other books here.


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