As I get to know the Central Baptist Theological Seminary community, I want you to hear some of the amazing stories that I am hearing. To share those stories with you, I am “interviewing” students, alums, faculty, staff, board members, and supporters, and each week I am sharing an interview on my blog, THIS IS CENTRAL. I invite you to join me on the journey of meeting members of our Central community.
Today’s interview is with Dr. David May, professor of New Testament and director of Master of Arts in Theological Studies Program.
PD: Tell us your Central origin story. How did you come to be connected to Central and in what ways over the years have you served, led, and been part of the Central community?
DM: In 1985 Anne Tyler wrote a book called The Accidental Tourist. A movie by the same name appeared in 1988. I have never read the book or seen the movie and have no idea what it is about; however, I have always liked the title. It has stuck in my mind as a memorable description.
By adapting it just a bit, it’s a good descriptor for me; I am “An Accidental Seminary Professor.” When I first began my seminary education in January 1981 in Louisville, Kentucky, at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I had no intention of becoming a seminary professor. I wanted to teach—yes, but not at a seminary.
My goal (or perhaps romanticized dream) was to teach New Testament in some small religious college, write some, preach occasionally, and maybe on the side coach the college tennis team. I visualized being surrounded by adoring undergraduates who would hang on my every word. Dr. May: Dispenser of Wisdom, Fount of Knowledge, Slayer of Ignorance, . . . the Oracle.
Since I am starting my 26th year at Central, it clearly did not work out the way I had imagined. To recount the epic story about becoming “an accidental seminary professor,” with all its twists and turns, i.e., Baptist politics, seminary intrigue, seminary takeovers, etc., would be a rather lengthy memoir. One feature does stand out. The children’s author, Lemony Snicket (pen name for Daniel Handler), might have called these twists and turns in my vocational journey a “Series of Unfortunate Events.” The writer of Genesis, in the words of Joseph to his brothers, would have called them something different, “You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it . . .” (Genesis 50:20a CEB). When I thought my days of teaching might end even before they really got started, I was invited to Central as a representative of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship tradition, and from 1994 to the present, being an accidental seminary professor has been a good thing. Central has been a place where I could fulfill my calling of teaching.
Of course, as I have learned over these last 26 years, the calling of teaching at Central has a broad definition. It might mean painting classrooms, moving tables and chairs, learning new technologies, changing pedagogy strategies, committee work (oh so many meetings), speaking in churches, making chili, moving books, leading academic processionals, and many other activities. But what has energized my calling to teach at Central the most has been the students who have sat in my classes with their hopes and visions of the movement of God.
PD: Share with us your life’s journey and work. Where have you invested your gifts and energy?
DM: My hope is that I have invested my gifts and energies to help individuals, students, pastors, laity, and all folks “know the Scriptures” just a little bit better. Anyone who holds the Bible in his or her hands also needs to hold it responsibly in his or her mind and heart. The irresponsible use of Scripture is all too easy to see, hear, and find today. Scripture is abused when it is used as a warrant for political or theological agendas. I hope by teaching theological students, speaking to churches, and by writing to the larger public that I am encouraging a healthy engagement with Scriptures.
I also hope, through my writings and teaching, that I enable readers of the Bible to approach and understand Scripture as a witness, that is, a witness to our ancestors in faith as they imperfectly and yet sincerely sensed the movement of God in their lives. Those women and men who populate the pages of the Bible lived “God-moments” in their own unique contexts. Often, they did this in failing and flailing ways, but Scripture is the tangible evidence of their attempt to record God at work with, through, around, and in them.
When Scripture is a witness for us, the experiences of our ancestors in faith can be woven into our experiences today. This does not mean the descriptive stories and the prescriptive mandates of the first century are applied literally to twentieth-first century situations—this type of approach can only bring the ringing words of Jesus into our ears: “You know neither Scripture nor the power of God” (Mark 12:24). Rather, we acknowledge that in Scripture we can discern a map for guidance and discipleship into the complexities of our world.
PD: What do you believe are Central’s best gifts and greatest strengths?
DM: When I think about Central’s best gifts and greatest strength, one word comes to mind. Perseverance. For 120 years, and many of them difficult years, Central has existed to fulfill its mission. Central has endured. I am reminded of the writer of Hebrews who wrote, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith . . .” (Hebrews 12:1-2a). A cloud of witnesses has assisted Central to persevere over the years, and because of that assistance, we are still here.
PD: What is bringing you joy in this hard season of COVID?
DM: Reading. In books, I escape the pandemic, at least temporarily, into utopias, dystopias, fantasies, fiction, histories, lives of interesting individuals, and mysteries. As the writer Ray Bradbury once said, “Reading is one of the joys of life, and once you begin, you can’t stop.”
PD: What hobbies, activities, adventures, family connections are keeping you healthy?
DM: Two activities help keep me physically and mentally healthy. First, I play tennis. I have played tennis for the last 50 years. I played on my high school and college teams and taught tennis, which helped (along with my wife Pam’s efforts) put me through seminary. It is not only a great physical activity, but it has allowed me to encounter some fascinating and wonderful folks along the way.
A second activity is restoring vintage fountain pens. While I am quite the technology nerd using all the newest gadgets, I also love the old technology of a fountain pen. There is a unique feeling of connecting ink to paper, and I believe one thinks and writes better with a fountain pen. There is also a special feeling when restoring a fountain pen and bringing it back to life and use. As I look at the most recent restoration lying on my desk, a 1947 Scripto, Magnifill, I try to imagine what the individual wrote with this pen—letters to his or her mother, a letter to a congress person, a check, a memo, a novel, who knows. And in a throw-away society, a fountain pen is one small example of sustainability for the environment. According to the EPA, each year in the United States individuals throws away 1.6 billion ballpoint pens. A fountain pen can last for generations.