In the weeks leading up to Greer Heard, we are posting Q&A’s we did with the speakers of this year’s Greer Heard forum. Our first piece is with Jennifer Knust. We want to provide these Q&A’s so that you are able to access the information presented at Greer Heard easier, as well as giving you a chance to see a piece of the person behind the ideas.
Steve: Tell me Jennifer, where are you from?
Jennifer: For more than a decade, I’ve been from Boston, MA, where I teach and live. I moved seven times growing up, so I don’t really have a place where I’m “from.” I have deep connections in Mount Vernon, Maine — I go there with my family every summer — and for many years I considered New York City my home. Until recently, I had lived there longer than anywhere.
Steve: So, how did you arrive at this point in your life?
Jennifer: I went to college at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where I met an amazing campus minister by the name of the Reverend Jim Holiman. He got me connected to the sanctuary movement and, after a trip to Central America, I changed course and decided to go to seminary. I went to Union Theological in New York, was a pastor in Philadelphia, went back for my doctorate at Columbia, got my first job at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA and then moved to BU. Along the way, I met many inspiring pastors, professors, and friends who changed me and my life forever. I particularly want to mention the Reverend Robert Castle, formerly the priest in charge of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Harlem, Pastor Carl Storms, formerly the pastor at First Baptist Church of Mount Vernon, Maine, and the Reverend Ashlee Wiest-Laird, my pastor at First Baptist Church, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. I am the mother of two amazing sons and, now that my kids are grown, I live at a freshman dorm at BU, which I thoroughly enjoy.
Steve: Who are some authors that have influenced you the most?
Jennifer: I grew up reading the Bible and fairytale books. The Bible influenced me the most—I am a Bible scholar after all—but in my imagination I lived the fairytales. As a little girl, my world was filled with fairies, elves, talking animals, and other magical creatures. I’ve loved many fiction writers too, from Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James to Toni Morrison and W. G. Sebald. Really there are too many to name. More recently I’ve been pouring over the short stories of Lucy Corin, which I highly recommend. I’ll never forget reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time and also The Autobiography of Mother Jones (check out the story about the women singing their way out of jail). At the moment, I have been thinking a lot about the work of Wendy Brown, Eve Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, Bruno Latour, and Rita Felski. So much to read! So many inspiring writers! Not enough time…
Steve: What are you going to assert at Greer Heard this year?
Jennifer: Well I don’t want to reveal my hand quite yet! But basically I’ll be talking about the way that modernity has required that the Gospels, and therefore Jesus as well, be measured against standards of “objective history” that they cannot meet. I want to think about how the questions of how Jesus became God or God became Jesus are framed by our own historically situated and culturally informed understandings of what makes a narrative realistic and believable. Why do we need Jesus’ first followers to understand Jesus’ divinity in precisely the same ways that we do (if we do need that)?
Steve: And, how will Michael Bird respond to your position?
Jennifer: I have no idea, but I’m not sure that he will necessarily disagree on every point. He knows the history of the quest for the historical Jesus well, and has also written critically about it. We differ, I suspect, in the conclusions we draw from our shared knowledge of receptions of Jesus since the advent of modernity, and he is much more optimistic than I am about our ability to identify what the first followers of Jesus really thought and believed. I will be interested to see how he will respond.