A life well spent in search of knowledge
The Rev Dr Judith McKinlay did not look to the Church for easy answers. Her questions were much too searching for that, writes her son, Otago Daily Times features editor Tom McKinlay.
AMONG the tributes at Judith McKinlay’s funeral was one emailed by Prof Carolyn Sharp, a colleague in biblical scholarship from Yale Divinity School, in the United States.
She said Judith had given her courage ‘‘many times’’ to continue her work, when she had been afraid to push past ‘‘guild norms’’. Prof Sharp shared part of a preface for a new book, on Joshua, in which she singled out Judith for showing how ‘‘feminist and postcolonial scholars might interrogate their own positions of privilege . . . I have learned much from her’’.
It was a tribute the rest of us recognised to a woman who continued to ask questions, including of herself, until the last.
Judith did not live to read the preface herself. She died on February 9, aged 81, following a period with cancer, at home in Dunedin.
Feminism and postcolonialism were at the heart of Judith’s journey as a biblical scholar. A journey that saw her become professor of Old Testament at Knox Theological Hall, the first woman to hold the position.
So, it’s interesting that when she wrote of her background and how it might have influenced her life choices, it was the men in her past — colonists, even — that she named first.
‘‘Was I predestined to enter the Presbyterian ministry?’’ she wrote.
‘‘Not only was my father, Graeme McKenzie, a Presbyterian minister (appointed Moderator in
1973), but his — and therefore my — immediate forebears were members of a community led by an autocratic Scottish cleric
[the Rev Norman McLeod], that left Scotland for Nova Scotia in 1817, and after some years there sailed on to New Zealand where, after requesting land for his close Gaelicspeaking community, finally settled in Northland at Waipu.’’
The romanticism of the story pleased Judith, I think: Scots leaving a land infested with English and the ‘‘worldly’’ to follow an idea.
Her Waipu family was one of teachers, her greatgrandfather the first teacher and registrar of the community there. And, indeed, Judith began as a school teacher — after graduating with a master’s degree (hons) in
Latin from Victoria University in Wellington — at Rangiora High School.
Teaching remained a passion throughout her life.
JUDITH was born in Drury, outside Auckland, in 1937 to the Rev McKenzie and his wife, Esther, a sharply intelligent, Yorkshireborn woman and also a teacher.
She did not find the
expectations attached to being a minister’s daughter easy, but church remained important and she met my father, Henry McKinlay, at a Student Christian Movement camp in Palmerston North.
Soon after marrying, in 1963, the pair embarked on a peripatetic period, taking in the UK, Indonesia and the New Hebrides, following my father’s early medical career.
In 1971, they settled in Dunedin — with three children by this time: Jane, Richard and me — where Henry took on a medical practice. In 1974, they had the last of their four children, my brother Luke.
In the late ’70s, Judith became aware of the recently established Women’s Refuge in Dunedin, and in 1980 joined the collective. Here she met feminism in action, she wrote later: ‘‘Gaining an understanding of the subtleties of control as well as the more overt forms of domestic violence.’’
The experience fed into her decision to train for the Presbyterian ministry with the possible goal of working as a chaplain. She applied to Knox Theological Hall in 1983 and began training the following year.
They were years in which feminism was making its mark in the academic world, Judith recorded. In that same year, a groundbreaking work, In
Memory of Her, by Harvard professor Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, appeared, reclaiming the role played by women in early Christian history.
In the years immediately following its publication, Judith’s focus was New Testament studies and she quoted Fiorenza’s translation of 1 Corinthians in a finalyear exercise: ‘‘You however are in Christ Jesus who has become for us Sophia from God. We too have heard.’’
Sophia, the wisdom figure of the Bible, the goddess figure, had somehow survived the millennia during which scribes and other keepers of the faith had insisted on a singular, essentially masculine deity, to reappear as an aspect of the personification of God made flesh.
The Wisdom figure became the subject of Judith’s PhD, begun in 1987 and later published as Gendering Wisdom the Host.
‘‘So followed many years in company with Wisdom/Sophia, agreeing with those suggesting a possible origin in earlier Canaanite and Israelite goddesses such as Asherah,’’ Judith would write.
The numinous had always been feminine too, and could be again.
BY 1989, Judith had become a temporary lecturer in Old
Testament Studies at Knox.
After years of domestic duty, Judith had found great richness in her return to studies, working tirelessly as a student; among other things, mastering the exotic scrawl of ancient Hebrew. It seemed now that she might reap the rewards.
But it wasn’t going to be quite
that straightforward. While feminist biblical scholarship had moved forward in leaps and bounds, the Church had not.
When, in 1990, Judith was nominated for the chair in Old Testament Studies, there was opposition that continued all the way to the Church’s highest court, the General Assembly. It looked very much like both Judith’s gender and her feminism were at issue. Nevertheless, a vote at the assembly confirmed Judith in the position, over objections from the floor, and she became professor of Old Testament Studies.
By 1996, the financial position of the Church led to the University of Otago assuming full responsibility for the teaching of theology, following a period of cooperation with Knox. Judith took up a position in the university’s new department of theology and religious studies.
By this time, her scholarship was both feminist and postcolonial in its focus, reading the biblical texts from the point of view of a Pakeha woman in Aotearoa.
In his eulogy, Prof Peter Matheson, who worked with Judith at Knox, said she carved her own space within the Church’s tradition, while remaining true to it.
‘‘She is one of those rare theologians who are genuinely original, not only in what she said, but in how she said it,’’ Prof Matheson said.
‘‘She taught us that we read the text, or are read by it, according to where we stand, blinkered as we are by our complicities, illumined, if so it be, by happenstance.’’
Judith took a panoply of women from the ancient texts and read them through a new lens, restoring their agency and significance.
Among these was Jezebel. In her 2004 book Reframing Her,
Judith questioned every part of the received understanding of the Phoenician queen who married into Hebrew history. Jezebel the outsider, the
Other, the worshipper of
Baal and Asherah, the threat to Israel’s mythology in the making, is assessed in a more sympathetic light.
But the women didn’t get a free pass. Rahab and Ruth had to answer for their roles in the Israelites’ acquisition of land following the Exodus. In this context Judith wrote that ‘‘there is an ongoing danger that other dominant cultures, such as mine, will find it all too easy to identify with the dominant voice, which justifies the taking of land, on the assumption that Canaanites are inherently wicked.’’
Judith was very specifically thinking of the way in which Maori here have been dispossessed of their land.
A later object of her scholarly attention were the Daughters of Zelophehad, five sisters — Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah — who appear in Numbers in the Hebrew Bible.
Their moment comes as the Israelites close on the ‘‘promised land’’. Their father, Zelophehad, dies leaving no sons, so, stepping outside tradition, boldly they approach Moses’ tent to demand they be permitted to inherit.
Judith writes in her 2014 book, Troubling Women and
Land: ‘‘I am indeed in awe of them.’’
Then she looks again, and realises the inheritance is in fact land taken from others, those already living in Caanan. This Judith considers alongside the Wakefield settlements of New Zealand, noting Edward Gibbon Wakefield described the new country as ‘‘the land of promise’’.
She says to the daughters: ‘‘I find I cannot overlook the fact that the land you were demanding, as your right, was not yours at all, but other people’s land.’’
JUDITH’S work led in 2010 to an invitation to present a paper at Yale on ‘‘The Challenges and Opportunities for Feminist and Postcolonial Criticism’’.
One of her final essays will appear in the Oxford Handbook on Feminist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament,
due out this year.
However, the international engagement with her work also underlined a growing gulf between where she was and directions in the Presbyterian Church.
These same decades witnessed the Church’s failure to address the place of gay clergy, another issue on which Judith championed inclusion and diversity. The wearying toll of such struggles and the seemingly intractable position of the Church led to a realisation that her role as a Presbyterian minister was not tenable, and it was with considerable sadness that she resigned in 2015.
Earlier, Judith had been active internationally with the World Council of Churches (WCC). In 2004, she presented a keynote speech at the WCC Faith and Order Plenary Commission Assembly in Kuala Lumpur.
Judith was always a poet. I remember her sitting writing in the evening when we children were younger, on a sheepskin rug, hugging the heater.
Poetry was woven through her academic writing. In recent years, she returned to it for its own sake.
Judith celebrated the language of Wisdom as ‘‘the tree of life’’ (Proverbs), ‘‘memory of whom is sweeter than honey’’ (Sirach).
‘‘This was, and continues to be for me, a poetry of delight,’’ she wrote.
Judith dressed the women of her research in this language, rescuing them from the margins and relieving them of the burden of questionable roles, beginning with Eve.
She, in the words of one of Judith’s poems, was to be found, not guiltily hiding her nakedness, not fallen, but bringing the world to life, ‘‘tripping and slipping to earth
. . . While Wisdom is dancing around her apricot tree’’.
Judith McKinlay is survived by her four children and nine grandchildren.
Wise words . . . Judith McKinlay delivers a lecture at Yale University.
Judith McKinlay holds the first of her four children, Jane, in the mid1960s.