Emory Report

December 13, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 15


O'Day prepares Candler students for the big leagues

Unfortunately for many baseball fans in Atlanta, neither Gail O'Day's faith in God nor her knowledge of Scripture was enough to propel a certain team to victory one evening in October. But don't say she didn't try.

"We were surrounded by Yankees fans," O'Day said of her trip to Turner Field for Game 1 of the 1999 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees. "It was a lot of fun for seven innings, then they got really obnoxious."

A longtime Braves and St. Louis Cardinals fan, Emory's Almar H. Shatford Professor of Homiletics in the School of Theology knows more than her share about the church of baseball. But it's an older faith that has provided her with a career--and a calling.

O'Day teaches New Testament and preaching in the theology school and is ordained in the United Church of Christ. While in divinity school, she said she felt a compelling interest in scholarship and teaching, and a master's from Harvard, along with a doctorate in New Testament from Emory, would allow her to combine both vocations--God led her to a lectern rather than a pulpit.

"I really think my calling is teaching and preparing students for the ministry," she said. "I try to equip them with the skills to read biblical texts and make the move from the text to the contemporary situation."

It's not as easy as it sounds. O'Day confesses to more than a little frustration when she sees religious and political figures interpret the Bible narrowly to suit their own agenda. Not everyone's spiritual umbrella is quite as big as, say, Jimmy Carter's or Desmond Tutu's, whom O'Day admires for their ability to recognize others' viewpoints.

"It can be demoralizing to see people speak so inflexibly and confidently without working hard to know the whole story," she said. "Contemporary conversation seems to have lost the ability to hold conflicting opinions--and that's a real loss."

Balancing conflicting opinions figures prominently in O'Day's own research, since it's devoted to the much-debated gospel of John. She has published a commentary on the book she considers to be very important to Jewish-Christian relations, since it dealt as much with what the earliest Christians were not as what they were.

"I just think the guy who wrote it was a theological and pastoral genius, and I like getting inside what he had to say," O'Day said. "He tackles some difficult questions. I don't always agree with his answers, but he grapples with the questions, and that's what interests me."

Last summer O'Day was granted an opportunity to do some serious question-grappling of her own when she was named the new editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature, the most prestigious academic journal for biblical studies in the world. She's already begun to put her own stamp on the 119-year-old journal, appointing younger and religiously diverse scholars to its editorial board.

"I'd like it to reflect the changing generation of biblical scholars," she said. "Sometimes there's a perception that the journal is wedded to particular, historically critical-oriented methods. Actually, I'd like it to be more open to broader representation than is perceived."

Making the journal more reflective of modern thought and scholarship is one thing, but keeping pace with modern culture is something else. The Society of Biblical Literature, the journal's parent organization, has plans to add an online version of the publication starting next fall, with a trial electronic issue in the spring. "There was a big learning curve for me in that area," O'Day said with a roll of her eyes. "My colleagues would have laughed at me--most of my experience is in old-fashioned editing."

O'Day is still getting used to another new phenomenon: marriage. Though she and fellow theology Associate Professor Tom Frank have been close friends for 15 years, they recently made it official. Their relationship stretches back to when they were both in graduate school at Emory, then taught simultaneously at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Besides her 9-year-old, 97-pound Newfoundland, Emma, the two share at least one other common love: baseball.

Frank used to run the Braves' scoreboard at Fulton County Stadium and was working April 8, 1974--the night Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth's all-time record. O'Day didn't make it down to Emory until a few years later, and she discovered the Braves at a time when tickets were easier to come by than today. "When I was in graduate school, they were pathetic," she laughed. "It was me and about 800 other people at the game."

Including Frank. Years later, the stands are more crowded, but summer evenings still find theology's O'Day and Frank munching Cracker Jack at the altar of the church of baseball.

-Michael Terrazas

Return to December 13, 1999 contents page