By Kerry Temple, courtesy of the University of Chicago Magazine
Photo by Jason Smith

What makes the Divinity School unique is the wide range of traditions, methodologies, dispositions, and commitments that all come together here in a spirit of reasoned, critical debate.”
—Margaret Mitchell
Dean of the Divinity School

Editor's note: This story is excerpted from the November/December 2013 issue of the University of Chicago Magazine. Read it in its entirety here.

Room 208 in Swift Hall is a corner classroom on the main quadrangle, and on this Wednesday evening about 20 students are loosely convened. They are here to talk about the Gospel of Mark and the passion narrative. Some have laptops; some have notebooks. Each has a copy of Novum Testamentum Graece, an original Greek version of the New Testament, and at this point in the quarter every book is roughed up, marked up, looking lived in.

This is a story about talking. And the topic is religion, a subject often avoided in polite company, so easily does it incite displeasure, even animosity, among friends and neighbors—to say nothing of those for whom religion is a fiery and irremediable divide.

It’s about conversations that poke the embers of deep-rooted passions, that probe the personal reserves of faith and belief. About the knotty dialogue between 21st-century scholars and ancient texts, between the truths of antiquity and today’s expressions of fundamentalist fervor. It’s about the scholarly argumentation that takes place in the Divinity School, where the word “rigorous” is more mantra than adjective.

It’s also about the woman who, since she became dean of the Divinity School in 2010, encourages such talk, kindles it, leads and orchestrates it. While Margaret M. Mitchell, AM’82, PhD’89, acknowledges that conducting such talk is volatile, she not only champions the school’s tradition of animated intellectual discourse but says the times call for it.

Religious zeal inflames a spectrum of political movements and policy making, from marriage laws to human reproduction, health care to land use to decisions on war, peace, and the use of violence to further religious aims. From the placement of nativity scenes on public property to the location of a mosque in New York City to the wearing of a burka in a public school. From the revival of evangelical Christianity in America to the rise of fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East.

Reading texts more deeply

The proceedings in Room 208 function as might be expected. Students take turns reading the Greek aloud, then translating, then interpreting. It is the interpreting, with Mitchell presiding, that takes the text—and the class discussion—to rich and surprising levels.

The vocabulary and syntax of ancient Greek are more open to ambiguity than English, creating a wider range of meanings. So students venture their interpretations but are pressed to defend their positions. Mark is Mitchell’s critical wheelhouse; she’s a world-renowned scholar on early Christianity. She wields the scalpel—but with a grace that turns the blade to baton, that reveals the Bible as literature.

Mark 14 and 15, she points out, present “an episodic narrative in which time slows down,” moving the reader “in slow motion toward the inexorable action” of Jesus’s final days.

“The text is a Frankenstein,” says Cameron Ferguson, a doctoral student from Minneapolis. What he means is that there are multiple editions of the Gospels and that scholars have sifted through these earliest codices to create what seems to be the best reconstruction possible. But he might as easily have said this diligently assembled “Frankenstein” is a monster of intellectual intricacy. “Mark is a master at using vocabulary, sentences, and ideas, and having them reappear,” Ferguson explains later. “You need to read the text over and over again. He wants it to ping with you.”

Ferguson is expected to give a presentation later in class on the correlations—the “pings”—between Mark and the writings of Paul, and he is anxious about it. “This is Dean Mitchell’s baby,” he explains later. “She knows her stuff, and, if you don’t, she’ll hold you accountable.”

The vital importance of religion

Swift Hall, home to the Divinity School, is a stone fortress on the main quadrangle, bedrock solid and old-school classic. UChicago’s first president, William Rainey Harper, a Hebrew and biblical scholar, believed any major research university should have the study of religion as a central enterprise. And to this day Swift remains the locus for scholars whose explorations into religion’s influence, history, rituals, texts, and traditions have informed deliberations spanning the globe.

Mitchell, the Shailer Mathews professor of New Testament and early Christian literature, became the school’s 12th dean in July 2010. She has described the school as “a tough-minded, sprawling, lively, engaging, and ongoing conversation about what religion is and why understanding it is so vitally important.”

A self-described “career research scholar and educator,” Mitchell has also called “the cultivation of new knowledge through research” the school’s dominant ethos, saying that “what makes the Divinity School unique is the wide range of traditions, methodologies, dispositions, and commitments that all come together here in a spirit of reasoned, critical debate.” It is important, she insists, to take the intellectual discussions to others, but to do so—to engage religion fully, honestly, and rigorously—is to play with fire.

As conductor of the religious conversation at UChicago, Mitchell steers the Divinity School not so much toward harmony as a common understanding of the enterprise. She does not want the school perceived as “the place where these softheaded, mushy religious people hang out and make each other feel good.” Or as “the place where they indoctrinate you to be religious.” Or “where they indoctrinate you to be against religion, the place where faith goes to die.”

The beauty of teaching

In Room 208 those layered, timeworn chapters in Mark provide a wealth of scholarly goods to be opened and shared, plundered and consumed. As students read and speak, Mitchell inquires and nudges and prods. When they ask questions, she sends them after answers, down the lines of text and through the channels of their own brains. Her classroom approach still incorporates the advice she was given as a 21-year-old about to teach prep school students not much younger than she: “Never leave your students with a world that’s finished.”

The class requires a healthy grasp of ancient Greek and a thorough understanding of Jewish and Gentile cultures, the Greek and Roman worlds this budding new religion was infiltrating—because each group would read and respond differently to the text. The teachings would convey different meanings of emperors, messiahs, and a new world order. About the paradoxical kingship of Jesus, not a kingship of coronation but of suffering. About the kingdom of God. And the irony of the son of David riding into the royal city of Jerusalem on a beast of burden and identifying this mysterious rogue with the title Son of Man. “So what do you do with a crucified miracle worker?” posits the dean. And the students leap on it.

On the meaning of anointment. And Jesus as Christ, the anointed one. Is it significant, a student asks, that Jesus is called “the anointed one” before he’s anointed? To which the dean answers: “What do you think?” Leading to a dive into the author’s literary sandwiching techniques—the ping device—in which elements appear and repeat and reappear. Not just in Mark but in older Jewish texts calling for the Messiah, the anointed one, who came, accepting death, in fulfillment of the Scriptures. 

“That’s the beauty of a class,” she says. “That’s what I love about teaching. It’s that you can just feel that moment when the tide is rising, when everybody is on their game and everybody contributes to a conversation that’s better than any one of us. That’s what education is about. It’s not just about the sage pontificating and the students writing it down. It’s about inquiry is fantastic.”

Originally published on April 28, 2014.