If you doubt whether the Bible is relevant today, talk to Abraham Smith. His wide-ranging work centers on connecting Biblical texts to modern issues – as well as contributing to a major, worldwide effort to update a translation of the Bible itself.
Currently, Smith is on sabbatical. He recently completed a book manuscript that examines mass incarceration in tandem with Luke’s critique of injustice in the Roman empire.
“There are imprisonment scenes all over the Book of Acts,” he said. “The book compares the prisons of today with prisons mentioned in the Book of Acts.”
He’s also working on research focused on church-based moral movements in four different time periods: The 1st century moral movement of which Jesus was a part; the anti-lynching crusade of Ida B. Wells in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of the 1960s led by Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the Third Reconstruction new fusion politics movement, begun in 2013 and led by the Rev. William Barber II of North Carolina, fighting for justice and against poverty.
“I’m looking at all four moral movements for their prophetic rhetoric, how they crafted their words and ideas to change public sentiment,” Smith said.
Smith, a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, also serves as a National Council of Churches’ representative to the editorial board that is overseeing an updated edition of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The Society of Biblical Literature, which developed the mandate for the updated edition in collaboration with the National Council of Churches, also recruited the editorial team and now manages the editorial process.
“The National Council of Churches owns the publishing rights to the NRSV, and there’s a 30-year review underway,” he said. “It’s not going to be a complete revision, but it will be an update, made in light of advances in scholarship, the publication of new manuscripts, and new information about the meaning of the words themselves. There’s also an effort to create more consistency in the text critical notation patterns.”
The most recent version was published in 1989; the next — after some debate, dubbed the “NRSV Update” — is scheduled for publication in 2020. The NRSV Update will continue to aim for the NRSV’s goal of being “as literal as possible and as graceful as possible.”
Smith has also been commissioned to do two other works: a book on the Black Studies movement in higher education, which began in the late 1960s and early 1970s and continues under the banner of African-American Studies or Africana Studies; and an essay looking at Howard Thurman and his seminal influential treatise, Jesus and the Disinherited, originally published in 1949. Thurman (1900-1981), an African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, served as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1965 and co-founded the first major interracial, interdenominational church in the United States.
“I’m writing an essay on that classic text for the 70th anniversary,” Smith said. “It’s an examination of the historical Jesus in the light of his attempts to address the needs of the disinherited and marginalized – persons with their ‘backs against the wall’.”
Smith is also involved in advocacy and educational efforts that take him beyond the walls of the academy. He’s on the board of a group called Equity for Women in the Church, an ecumenical movement helping congregations become more “female friendly,” and locally, he’s part of the Urban Engagement Book Club.
The book club is hosted by CitySquare Opportunity Center, an urban ministry program based in South Dallas, and has studied books on social justice topics ranging from Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy to Joyce King’s Hate Crime.
“I get a chance to hear about interesting books that I need to read,” he said. “And since we’re always talking about how these books deal with an issue in society, that keeps me grounded.”
Gospel of Luke, Gospel of Mark, 1 Thessalonians
African American biblical hermeneutics, cultural studies
Favorite Bible Verse
Proverbs 4:18, But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. “I discovered this verse when I saw the words in Spanish in an email from a friend in Chile,” Smith said. “I wondered where they came from and was shocked to learn they were from the Bible! I’ve been fascinated with this verse ever since.”
Book on the Nightstand
Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book looks at the presidential leadership styles of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. “The author looks at each of these four presidents’ ability to adapt,” he said. “Given the turbulent times we live in, I see the book as instructive about how leaders can adapt today in the face of personal and public difficulties.”
Fantasy dinner party
“I’d make it a small dinner party. I’d invite two persons I’m writing about: Ida B. Wells and Howard Thurman. The topic of discussion: How does one change the narrative or various myths that deny each person the right to have dignity and respect? That’s a concern for me. There are so many instances where persons are counted as nobodies because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or class. How do we change the narrative to give value and dignity to each person?”
“I’m originally from Mobile, Ala. My mother, Pauline Robinson Smith, died at a young age; so my father, Calvin Lewis Smith, a blind man, raised five children by himself. He was a minister who learned to read Braille and do trades. Friends and relatives wanted to break up my family, but my father insisted on raising us together, and all of us finished college and have done well in life. Three have master’s degrees, and I have a Ph.D. Both of my parents are gone now, but they still live and breathe in everything I do.”
Something about you that most people don’t know?
“Despite being gregarious, I don’t crave public attention. I’m very quiet and I love a lot of alone time.”
You get to ask one question at the Pearly Gates. What do you ask?
“I don’t think much about the afterlife, but I would like to know, ‘Are those gates there to let people in, or to keep people out?’ We hear so much about walls and gates. Whatever heaven is going to be, I hope it doesn’t translate into more structures that separate us.”
Do you follow a regular, personal practice (prayer, meditation, walking, etc.) that nourishes your spirit?
“I can’t live without music. Music nourishes my spirit. Every day I wake up to Kirk Whalum’s ‘Hymns: in the Garden.’ It’s a gospel CD of purely instrumental jazz. That music centers me for whatever my day brings.”