Scripture Has It


For Carleen Mandolfo, the Bible is a treasure trove

By Stephen Collins '74
Photography by Brian Speer

Photo by Brian Speer
The Bible is at the center of culture clashes, global and domestic. The fifth-highest grossing movie last year: The DaVinci Code. Teaching the Bible in American high schools made the cover of Time. Filmmaker James Cameron claims Jesus had a son with Mary Magdalene. Biblical themes remain rife in literature and film. Then there's Mel Gibson.

"Religion has become such a powerful force in the world in so many ways," said Assistant Professor Carleen Mandolfo (religious studies), who earned a Ph.D. at Emory studying the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. Old Testament). "It's a fun time to be a religious studies scholar, I have to say."

Be advised: Mandolfo isn't your mother's Bible scholar. On this, the first warm day of spring, her sleeveless outfit reveals elegant tattoos"pre-Celtic designs. Her forthcoming book offers a feminist reading of Lamentations.

Her enthusiasm for the material is evident as she strides into a packed classroom to teach Introduction to Christian Scripture: "New" Testament. She prowls the front of Lovejoy 208 like a cat, challenges students to find resonance of the Gnostic gospels in excerpts from the recently discovered Gospel of Judas, urges them to read the Judas text. "It's on the Web, in Coptic and in English," she said. "It was originally in Greek, but we haven't found that version."

She's a serious scholar who clearly loves the Bible. "It isn't just a piece of literature. I don't like to be that reductionist," she said, "because it has such enormous cultural authority and influence. It's not even 'just another Shakespeare,' which has enormous cultural influence. Its ontological being as a Word of God has had such an impact on our culture that it does require that we handle it a bit differently and teach it a bit differently."

"It isn't just a piece of literature.
I don't like to be that reductionist, because it has such enormous cultural authority and influence."

Carleen Mandolfo,
assistant professor of religious studies
Mandolfo is well aware that she is treading what is for many students sacred ground.

"You have people with faith commitments in the classroom for whom this is the Word of God, and they live or die by this Word. Their entire world is ordered by this Word. Then they come into my class and, I'm not sure what they expect, but they almost never get what they expect. I've had to learn on the first day of class to give a mini-lecture about the ways this is not Sunday School. ... This semester I lost a student after the first day."

This bothers her. She believes intellectual challenge and scholarly questioning are at the heart of liberal learning. "I come from a religious background myself ['raised Roman Catholic,' she says], and I think if they gave it a chance it could enrich their faith. Some of them do. Some of them stick it out and we have a good time. ...

"In the Hebrew Bible everything is there. I just love talking about the stories with my students, because they can see their lives in it."

When she was a Ph.D. candidate, Mandolfo asked her advisor why the world of Bible scholars seemed so insular despite all of the opportunities to talk about the Bible in modern life. "Why don't we write to the world instead of to each other?" she inquired.

Photo by Brian Speer
"My advisor said, 'Well, that's a very noble idea. But don't even think about it before you get tenure,'" suggesting that she focus on serious scholarship first. "Now that I have tenure I hope I can find that voice," she said in April. And, as the national co-chair of the Society of Biblical Literature's working group on teaching the Bible in public schools, she's poised to have a high-profile role in that national debate.

Her forthcoming book, being published by the Society of Biblical Literature, is titled Daughter Zion Talks Back to the Prophets: A Dialogic Theology of the Book of Lamentations. It takes the radical step of interpreting the first two chapters of Lamentations not as the Word of God, but rather as Daughter Zion challenging the dominant voice of the text. "I literally let her tell her side of the story, and interpreters have never done that, because you don't talk against God. God's position is always right."

A subsequent book will be about the Bible in popular film, a subject Mandolfo teaches. She also is one of the leaders of a faculty committee that's working to establish a cinema studies minor. More immediately, there's the New Testament course to wrap up. "For April twenty-fifth," she announces, "we'll do the introduction to Paul plus Corinthians and Galatians."

Escar Kusema '09, who has taken three courses with Mandolfo, said she was signing up for another and added, coincidentally, "I'm converting to a religious studies major today."

"She is one professor on campus I don't feel I have to make an effort to understand," said Kusema, who described herself as Christian and stressed the importance of understanding the scripture. "She just presents it from a scholarly point of view. ... It helps me to understand my religion."