by Robert Williamson, Jr. ‘01
“I can’t remember when I wasn’t a Presbyterian,” says Bill Brown, professor of Old Testament at Columbia, who fondly recalls his childhood church in Tucson. “I was very active in my youth groups during middle and high school,” he recalls, “and went to summer youth retreats at Montlure, the Presbyterian camp in Arizona. That was a formative time in my life.”
Though he entered college at the University of Arizona to pursue a career in mining engineering, Brown soon began to discern a call into the ministry. After his sophomore year, he transferred to Whitman College in Washington, where he majored in philosophy and worked with the youth group at a local church. “It was a great time for me,” he says, “sort of striking out into uncharted territory. I ventured into all kinds of different things, from playing in a Renaissance consort band to being a DJ at the local radio station, expanding my horizons.”
After graduation, Brown enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary with plans of becoming a church pastor, but during his field education experience he unexpectedly discovered a passion for teaching the Bible. “I had a wonderful supervisor and was able to do a little bit of everything, from preaching to funerals. But what really resonated with me was teaching an adult Sunday school class,” recalls Brown. “We met on Wednesday mornings over breakfast in a local restaurant to study the Bible. I realized then that what really enthralled me about ministry in particular was the teaching part. It was so gratifying to hear folks, particularly when we were reading very familiar passages in scripture, talk about how they had gained something new from reading the text together.”
This early experience taught Brown an important lesson about the nature of biblical exegesis that has continued to inform his own teaching methods, first at Union-PSCE in Richmond and now at Columbia, where he has been since 2004. “I’ve always wanted to market a bumper sticker along the lines of those old bumper stickers such as ‘Astronomers do it in the dark,’” he explains. “Mine would be: ‘Exegetes do it in public!’ That is not to say that we’re all exhibitionists as we ply our trade of exegesis, but that our interpretation of scripture has to be done in a communal context.”
Like the participants in his breakfast Bible study many years ago, Brown’s students at Columbia often find that when they read the text together, they gain insights into the text that they would not have found on their own. “When students read the text together in class, they often come out differently than they began,” Brown explains. “In some cases I would even say that transformation occurs.”
This is a lesson he hopes will carry over into their ministries. “One of the things I point out to my students as they prepare for ministry is that there is no lone prophet in the Bible,” he says. “Every prophet has his or her own support group and community, whether it’s Elisha or Elijah, or even Amos. There is no lone ranger in the Bible. And so also in the task of ministry—we are all working at it together.” The church, like the Old Testament itself, is strengthened when its diversity of voices are allowed to speak their truth, says Brown. “There’s Qohelet the skeptic on the one side and the fiery Amos on the other. The Old Testament is full of voices from the various parts of the human choir. Sometimes those voices are discordant and dissonant, but it’s all part of the biblical chorus.”
In his own ministry of teaching, Brown has found that Columbia’s faculty provides him with just such a diverse and supportive community in which to grow as a teacher and as a person of faith. Brown says that he has particularly enjoyed being part of a community that is devoted to the craft of theological education. “The faculty here is committed to exploring new ways of teaching,” he says. “I find myself here in a collegium of very gifted teachers.
We all teach in different ways, but as a faculty we are geared toward integrating faith and practice, both knowledge and formation. Columbia really is on the cutting edge of pedagogy, which is one of the things that attracted me to this place. I knew that it would stretch me.”
One aspect of Columbia that Brown has found particularly exciting is the opportunity to teach pastors in the Doctor of Ministry program. “Here are pastors engaged with deep and sometimes difficult texts, and their yearning and passion for insight and knowledge to put into practice in the church context sustain me in my own teaching ministry.” This summer, Brown taught his first Columbia D.Min. course, “Reclaiming Creation in a Post-Darwinian World.” The course examined the various creation texts in the Old Testament and their intersection with scientific models of creation. “My goal is to find ways to transcend the current, so-called ‘debate’ between the creationists and the evolutionsts,” says Brown. “This ongoing culture war provides the church the opportunity to delve more deeply into the complexities of biblical creation and to seek ways that constructively engage the scientific community and foster an ecological consciousness.”
Reflecting on his work with current and future pastors, Brown sees the fulfillment of the sense of call to ministry he began to feel as a sophomore in college. As part of Columbia’s faculty, he finds himself deeply involved in the academic study of religion and always striving to enrich the life of the church. “I have a deep sense of vocation, which is toward teaching and writing,” he says.
“I’m always seeking that fine balance between breaking new ground in scholarship and doing it in a way that the church finds edifying. Writing for me is a form of ministry, a ministry for the church, and an important one at that.”