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The Ear: Kendra Haloviak Valentine—Theologian at Work


Kendra Haloviak Valentine is a biblical theologian and associate professor with the H. M. S. Richards Divinity School at La Sierra University.  Before writing a doctoral dissertation on the hymns of Revelation for the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley), she worked as a pastor (in Kettering, Ohio, and in Takoma Park, Maryland) and college teacher (at Columbian Union College, now Washington Adventist University).  She took undergraduate majors in both theology and English at Washington Adventist University and earned a Master’s degree in New Testament studies at Andrews University.

Her publications include “The Book of Revelation,” in The Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, Joel Green, ed. (Baker Academic, 2011); and Signs to Life:  Reading and Responding to John’s Gospel (Signs Publishing, 2013).

Following the vote against women’s ordination at Adventism’s 1995 General Conference in Utrecht, the Netherlands, the Sligo Adventist Church, in Takoma Park, Maryland, broke ranks with official policy and conducted, on September 23, 1995, a service of ordination for three women.  The service was in all pertinent respects similar to services for males entering Adventist ministry, and occasioned coverage in, for example, Gustav Niebuhr’s New York Times “Religion Journal” column.

Haloviak Valentine was one of those three women.

Here is her perspective on the work of the Adventist theologian.

Question: What theologians say or write may seem abstract, theoretical.  How do you connect your work with the actual battle front of human existence, where we confront not only dreams and joys but also disappointments and extreme suffering?

Answer: The classroom keeps me grounded.  Students always ask questions that push the practical application of our discussion topics and biblical interpretations.  They come from Adventist homes that are broken and blended, know the loss of a grandparent who has been the primary guardian, and experience a variety of health challenges.  Uncle Arthur stories that reflect a type of “vending machine God” when it comes to answered prayers just do not work anymore, and they wonder how conversations about theology address the real stuff of life.  My students also reflect a diversity of faith traditions and communities, and they gently push those of us who are Adventists to reflect upon our assumptions about God, God’s Kingdom and the content of holy living.  In addition to my classroom experiences, prayer time at my local church each Sabbath reminds me of the joys and hurts of humanity.  When I engage in scholarly research I find myself thinking of my students’ stories and fellow parishioners’ prayers.

Question: People expect that as an Adventist Christian you will take Scripture as the highest written authority for your work.   How do you respond when the Bible seems to have various perspectives on a topic — on, say, marriage, the disciplining of wrongdoers, the use of violence or some other matter?  What principle of biblical interpretation helps you make sense of all this, and come up with insight applicable to Christian life today? 

Answer: I do take the Christian Scriptures as the highest written authority for my work.  It is my “sacred text.”  To your first question, I am no longer surprised by the diversity and disturbing nature of some biblical texts.  The main reason for this response is that I have come to distinguish between God and the Bible.  God is God; the Bible isn’t.  God is bigger than the inspired writers of scripture and beyond our best insights, understandings and actions.  While I believe that God speaks to humanity through the biblical writings, God stoops down to do so, using language to communicate with humans.  Even with all its amazing richness, language, like all human things, is limited and located.  How one answers the question “What is the Bible?” shapes one’s answer to the question “How does one best read the Bible?”  So, what is the Bible?  The Bible is a collection of writings inspired by God and written by humans over hundreds of years from a variety cultures and contexts and using a variety of genres.  I believe that the Bible is a living text, meaning that its words continue to have spiritual power and authority in ever new contexts.

What does this mean for how I believe we should read the Bible?  Since all language is limited and located, engaging the worlds of the Bible is always a cross-cultural experience.  Like when we travel and engage a new culture we, hopefully, exhibit respect even when we do not understand.  The more we can learn about the presuppositions and cultural values of the biblical world, the better readers we will be.  Therefore, treating the Bible with respect, taking it seriously, is not to assume it addresses only my world, but to learn as much as I can about the worlds behind the texts.  But Bible study is never merely a history lesson, it always challenges us to ask what the text means for us here and now.  We shouldn’t be surprised when Scripture disturbs us, when we must wrestle with passages that bring challenge and pain.  I am moved by Phyllis Trible’s image of wrestling with texts as Jacob wrestled with the angel, refusing to let go until being blessed, even if it means leaving with a limp. (See the Introduction in her book Texts of Terror.)  Reading the Bible faithfully means being changed by the experience.  The Bible does not exist to prove what we already know.  The Bible calls us to ever new experiences of reading and responding.

Question: Many church members believe Adventism is dealing with an identity crisis, driven, perhaps, by anxieties concerning our eschatology or our relationship to scientific knowledge.  Those who read widely and otherwise interact with the wider intellectual culture see our church going through intense self-analysis about who we are and what our role is.  Where do you think this discussion ought to take us?

Answer: These questions are not new.  It is true that the passing of time generates questions of meaning and identity for us, but in this we are no different from our pioneers.  The passing of time for our pioneers in the 1840s and 50s, for example, generated intense questions of meaning and identity and led to new understandings.  Wrestling with questions of identity is part of our heritage.

In my view, we must rid ourselves of the idea that “we have the truth” as if it were some final deposit with us.  This shuts down learning.  We need humility.  This is the attitude that makes possible new ways of expressing our rich tradition in contemporary contexts.  If we already have the truth, the focus becomes the past and memorizing what we already have received from that past.  If we are “humble before our God” we start on our knees with head bowed, open to the Spirit that continues to move in the world in surprising ways.  We need to embrace humanity.  I believe that our church has been at its best when it has focused on the needs of the people in our world.  I think of evangelistic tents in small mid-western towns at the end of the 1890s where women stood beside their husbands preaching and teaching Scripture.  I think of clinics around the world that have relieved the pain and suffering of countless people by offering medical care.  I think of the educational institutions established for the poorest and neglected of various communities, giving a future to their families.  We need hope.  The Adventist vision of a just world is a tremendous resource for contemporary engagement.  Our apocalyptic imagination, by which I mean a sense of the restoration of the entire cosmos —that someday the entire universe will be healed and restored — is a vision worth cherishing.  It stirs us to worship our wondrous God and to enact the Kingdom in the present.

Question: You belong to the Adventist Church; you were born into a churchmember’s family.  But why do you remain Seventh-day Adventist?  In a conversation with, say, your child or a close friend, what would you offer as the most important reason? 

Answer: I remain a Seventh-day Adventist because this particular Christian tradition has nurtured in me a hopeful future that includes the global family of God.  It is the place where I stand when asking questions and sharing convictions.  In other words, it is the place I stand to explore everything else, including Adventism!  It is my story and family, with all our victories and failures, embarrassing moments and God-inspired insights.  It is a community whose Sabbath celebrations of rest and work create a rhythm to life that is a blessing to be shared. 

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