Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Interview with with Audrey Assad: Deconverting from Certainty

In this episode, Pete & Jared speak with recording artist Audrey Assad about her music, her theology, and the shift from her conservative fundamentalist roots to Catholicism.

Read the transcript

Pete Enns: [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the Internet. Serious talk about the Sacred Book. I’m Pete Enns…

Jared Byas: [00:00:08] …and I’m Jared Byas. Welcome everyone to this episode of the Bible for Normal People. Today we’re going to be talking about deconverting from certainty. We’re talking with Audrey Assad. Her new album, Evergreen, just came out this past February and has some pretty significant themes to it.

Pete Enns: [00:00:26] Yeah, I mean, this is her processing of her own struggles with her faith in music. And I’m not going to go into detail. We’re going to let Audrey tell this story because she tells it so well about this process of moving from certainty to just a space of mystery and how she got there and how it actually probably saved her faith. I don’t think that’s an understatement. So yeah, I mean, Audrey is just a wonderful recording artist and just deep and raw. And I was introduced to her–I mentioned this at the end of the podcast–my daughter a few years ago sent me a link to one of her songs, “I shall not want,” which any Audrey Assad fan knows immediately the importance of that song. And it was just so beautiful and so, like I said, raw and authentic. And it was something I needed to hear and the power of music and the power of thoughtful lyrics and from somebody whose obviously felt things as well. And I just felt an immediate connection with Audrey and her music and so I started downloading everything and listened to stuff a lot from her. And it’s just really–it’s fun to have an artist, Jared, on the podcast because, you know, they’re more normal than I am and you are.

Jared Byas: [00:01:39] That may be the first time, I think, that you’ve put artist and normal in the same…

Pete Enns: [00:01:43] Well, yea because, you know, people they feel things and they sort of express them and like me–I’m just German, I don’t have feelings. I have arguments. Dagnabit.

Jared Byas: [00:01:53] Excellent. Alright. Well, let’s get into our conversation with Audrey.

Audrey Assad: [00:01:57] I see myself as someone who is building rooms for people to sit in different spots on their journey and every time I go through something, I build a room around it and then I walk forward and I build another one and people who come after me can use those space. People are going through this stuff, not just me. I think me being willing to speak up about my own journey here has been a real comfort and help to them to not feel alone in their communities. And I keep speaking because I believe it to be valuable.

Pete Enns: [00:02:26] Audrey Assad welcome to the Bible for Normal People podcast. Great to have you.

Audrey Assad: [00:02:31] Thank you for having me. It’s good to be here.

Pete Enns: [00:02:33] Awesome. So where are you talking to us from?

Audrey Assad: [00:02:35] I’m at my home in Nashville, Tennessee in the office.

Pete Enns: [00:02:40] Really? I was just in Nashville.

Audrey Assad: [00:02:42] Oh yea?

Pete Enns: [00:02:42] I would have dropped in unexpectedly had I known that you lived in Nashville. But yeah, that’s…

Audrey Assad: [00:02:46] You don’t have my address, Peter.

Pete Enns: [00:02:49] Oh, I can find it probably.

Audrey Assad: [00:02:50] That’s actually very true.

Pete Enns: [00:02:52] Oh I know people.

Jared Byas: [00:02:54] And that’s just a little creepy.

Audrey Assad: [00:02:55] I know. No, I am really paranoid about people being able to find my address on the Internet. But it’s everywhere. There’s like no way to erase it, so it’s just…

Pete Enns: [00:03:01] I’m hoping people show up, but nobody does. I’m just lonely. Nobody cares about me at all. So, anyway…

Jared Byas: [00:03:08] Alright, get on with the hard questions.

Pete Enns: [00:03:10] I know. Hey, I have been listening to music now for a couple of years and I really love it. And my daughter turned me on to some of your stuff a couple of years ago that was just so wonderful. And the more I sort of looked into your own history, I just found it to be very interesting. Your own journey of faith. That sounds trite, but it’s really true. And maybe just for the benefit of our listeners, tell us your story of your faith journeys and maybe some of your struggles and we’ll just take it from there. Because I think it’s a great story.

Audrey Assad: [00:03:40] Well. So, I’m from New Jersey. Not too far from where you teach. I actually have visited–or have taught–I don’t know if you still teach there–at Eastern. But I have visited that campus and thought about going there and then end up there. So, we missed each other in that way. But I grew up in the Northeast and my mom is from the south. My dad is from Syria. He is a refugee from Syria that came here in the 70s. So I grew up in a multicultural home in a very diverse area, which I love. And just–I’m so thankful that everyone hates Jersey because it means that there’s more of it for me. But, I love it. So that’s where I grew up. And I was raised in a Christian home. We were members of a Plymouth Brethren Church, which is something that a lot of people may not be familiar with. But I like to say I’m more famous because our founder John Nelson Darby was sort of the first person to sort of proliferate the idea of a preacher relational rapture and it was very much at the center, in some ways, of how we worshipped and studied the Bible. You know, we did lots of Bible study of revelation. It was a very Bible study culture. So I grew up really digging into the Bible although we had a sort of very specific and limited hermeneutic, I guess I would say. So it was kind of myopic but at the same time, I kind of have grown thankful over the years that I was sort of taught to value it so much. So that was kind of my context. We had a really kind of interesting culture. It’s a very sort of–it’s a spectrum of culture. So there’s like more a progressive and maybe more like your typical traditional Bible Church. But where I grew up was on the sort of far right of that spectrum, where women couldn’t pray out loud in front of males who are over the age of reason. You couldn’t speak or read a scripture or ask a question at church. You had to go home and ask your dad, you know, if you had a question. And so there was a really strong sort of gender role–there was strongly enforced gender roles and that manifested various ways in my own life obviously and as a singer and songwriter I didn’t really start doing that until I was 19 years old because I didn’t have any examples of women who did that sort of thing. I compare it to a Quaker background for people who want to kind of get an idea of what it felt and sounded like. You know, our church was wood walls and floors, wooden chairs, no curtains, no carpets, no images. Extremely ascetic and bare. And we were sort of very much people of the Word. Like it was all head thing. There was no physical sacramentally like maybe the liturgical churches have. And no spiritual gifts like the Pentecostal and the charismatic churches have because we were–we didn’t believe in that. So, it’s just very somber and quiet.

Pete Enns: [00:06:29] Sort of harsh even.

Audrey Assad: [00:06:31] Yeah, yeah. I would say so. But at the same time, there’s something really special about being in a room with a bunch of people singing without any instruments  at full voice because we were all sort of taught how to do that. We were just around it our whole lives. So, we read – -we all read music and could follow along and sing all the parts and there’s something really kind of cool about it, but also I would say very countercultural and different. So that was kind of my context as a kid. When I turned 18, we moved to Florida. My dad just kind of decided he wanted to relocate and I was like–free rent. I’m going with him. So… I moved to Florida with him and lived there for six years and while I was there, I kind of started to do that thing you do at that age where you finally start asking questions about things. So I went to a Plymouth Brethren church for about a year and a half while I was there, but it was an hour away. And I was there four times a week. And I put a lot of miles on my car and I finally decided, you know what, I don’t know if I can do this anymore. I’m going to try out some other places which was, you know, just crazy notion. But–because we were very much, you know, you married Plymouth Brethren. You didn’t work with people outside Plymouth Brethren. That was kind of how I grew up. But I started going to a little Baptist church when I was 19. And that was where I learned to lead worship. That’s where I first kind of started listening to worship music, because I didn’t listen to that growing up. And then from there it’s like a lot of–I feel I’ve got to say yada yada yada a lot because there’s a lot of moving around, but I–I went to a Presbyterian church from there for about a year and a half. And while I was at a Presbyterian church, I met a Catholic who was, like, very different than the New Jersey Catholics I had happened to know. He was very devout and intelligent. And I don’t–not that they weren’t intelligent, but he was articulate about what he believed and why. And we had lots of crazy conversations about it. And I started to get really interested because I think I was finally getting to a place when I was about 20/21-years-old where I was asking myself: why am I at church? What am I here for? And I know it sounds like a silly question, but it actually didn’t feel silly to me at all. I sort of started to think: I could like download a sermon on podcasts and I could go hang out with people and have “fellowship” on a Friday night of Bible study. And, like, all of this stuff. What am I here for? I don’t understand what this is. And I started to be really intrigued by the idea of sacraments. And that was kind of the beginning of my journey into Catholicism, in terms of any like direct way. And so I ended up studying a kind of being catechized by some people I had my life–by this guy that I met and his family and I became a Catholic when I was 24, which was, you know, for a Plymouth Brethren kid, it’s truly anathema. And I got a lot of pushback from people, of course. But I felt really sure that it was imperfect, but the oldest church–or arguably one of the oldest–Orthodox Catholic, kind of that stream of Christianity. I felt like I wanted to be connected to that. And so I took the plunge and I’ve been Catholic for ten years now. And now in the midst of being a Catholic, I’ve gone through a pretty serious deconstruction. And I would say reconstruction at the same time. It was kind of both. It has been both at the same time. And I’m still kind of in that. Meanwhile, sort of still planted in Catholicism. But have really sort of had my old fundamentalist residue like really shaken off and challenged.

Pete Enns: [00:09:55] Audrey, do you feel–can I just ask you a question about that? Do you feel that your Roman Catholic context gives you freedom to sort of live in that space where you’re still sort of working things out? Or do you–I mean, I imagine with the Plymouth Brethren, it would have been–there’s not even a language for that.

Audrey Assad: [00:10:10] No, there would have been no manual for it. You know, I had questions when I was young and I would ask them in Sunday school and really truly received the answer: just don’t ask those questions. It’s that idea. Bad question. The things that, you know, we all ask, like why did God order genocide in the Old Testament? You know, they’re like–just don’t ask that. That was the reaction. So that–there would have been no help given or guidance or understanding once, you know–Catholicism–okay, I’ll say this–on paper, yes. Because Catholicism is an incredibly broad and wide berth of different opinions and different approaches to doctrine and devotion and discipline and all those things. But in America, a lot of Catholics are just like a lot of Protestants, which is to say that they are sort of like American-Christians. And America comes first. And I find that it’s discouragingly prevalent in Catholicism to be that way in this country and I think it’s just part of our country’s unique sickness. I’m already going there. Sorry guys.

Pete Enns: [00:11:08] No, that’s okay. Go wherever you want, Audrey.

Audrey Assad: [00:11:09] But I have also known and clung to the fact that there are people within the Catholic Church’s history, especially even in this country like Thomas Merton who–or Dorothy Day–who really would be called a flaming liberal by everybody in some of the parishes I’ve been to in the south. And you know, I’ve said to myself: well, you can say I don’t belong here but I get to say you’re wrong. I do. I have a place here just like some of these other people have a place. So, on paper, in theory, and in my own head, yeah, I do have more freedom. But I do meet with a lot of resistance to what I’ve been doing and how I’ve been doing it in terms of deconstructing and reconstructing. And I’m just trying to let my–let it roll off my back as much as I can because I truly do believe that this is the mystical way that many of my heroes have traveled before. And I might not be good at it, but I have to do it.

Jared Byas: [00:12:03] Yeah, Audrey, maybe give us a brief biblical history so you can track the spiritual, even denominational, path that you’ve walked. How has your views of the Bible kind of tracked with that from the Plymouth Brethren to the Catholic Church?

Audrey Assad: [00:12:16] Yea, as a Plymouth Brethren kid, we were taught that the Bible is self-interpreting. And so all you need to do to interpret the Bible is understand the Bible’s code. That, you know, these certain people that we happen to be sort of denominationally descended from–these people happened to have the keys to that, so we were in luck. You know? And so we were scholars from a young age of how to study the Bible and it was all very specific to John Nelson Darby, Schofield, these kind of thinkers that really contributed to the evangelical ideas of pretribulational rapture and premillennialism and stuff like that. So that was our lens. And we read the entire scripture through that lens. And so we weren’t taught to consider historical-critical approaches or sort of various ways that there are of studying the Bible. We weren’t taught to consider those because they were not valid. And so my understanding of the Bible really came down to the reality that everything was to be read through this dispensation.

Pete Enns: [00:13:14] Audrey can ask a quick question for clarification? I’m wondering if there might be some listeners who aren’t familiar with the pretribulational…

Audrey Assad: [00:13:24] Yes.

Pete Enns: [00:13:24] It’s been a long time since I’ve said that. You see, it isn’t foremost on my mind.

Jared Byas: [00:13:28] Doesn’t roll off the tongue anymore.

Pete Enns: [00:13:29] That’s when we just say–Pretrib Rapture. What in heaven’s name are you talking about?

Audrey Assad: [00:13:34] Yea. So, there’s lots of schools of thought on what’s going to happen at the end of time. And a lot of Christians, a lot of believers, and Jewish people before them, have been wondering and writing about and studying what might happen at the end of time. The Pretribulational Rapture Theory is this idea that comes from a very literal reading of the Book of Revelation. That Jesus will come back. That all the Christians will be raised from the dead. And all the Christians who are alive on the earth will be caught up in the air. That’s the rapture. And that they will meet him in the air and be in heaven. And then there will be a literal seven-year tribulation on the earth in which the Antichrist will sort of take over and the deceive people. And then Jesus will come back at the final end to vanquish the Antichrist in a giant battle at Armageddon. And then time will be over. And in our school of thought, no one got a chance on earth. So even like after the rapture happened, you didn’t get a chance. So even the Left Behind books were too liberal for us because there are people getting second chances down here. Like what do they think this is? The lottery? This is not how this works. We were just very hard-lined about that being exactly how things were going to go. And that’s really the pretribulational rapture. It’s as simple as like, I hate to say it, is a very literal reading of a few verses in a book of the Bible–the last book of the Bible. And, so, yeah. So that’s kind of what we read the Bible for. And everything served or was served by that. So being Catholic was very challenging to my old ideas even though I had kind of left them behind that it’s just like–it’s so deeply ingrained in you. And then I started to be like–why–the Catholic Church, man, they only preach for like 10 minutes. Like what? What is his deal? You know? The podium or the ambo, as it’s called in the Catholic Church, where you read the Bible from and where you preach from, is over to the side and not in the center. And that’s very intentional. Because the center for Catholics is supposed to be the sacrament of the Eucharist, which was a heretical idea to me–would have been to me growing up. We thought it was idolatrous and I was taught that Catholics were part of the Revelation story. Like you read about the whore of Babylon. And that was the Catholic Church. And the Antichrist could probably be a pope. And so it’s just very very . ..

Pete Enns: [00:15:53] Audrey, please tell us that you had Chick Tracts.

Audrey Assad: [00:15:56] Oh, yes I did.

Pete Enns: [00:15:57] Did they give you nightmares too?

Audrey Assad: [00:15:59] They did. I hated those things, but I thought…

Pete Enns: [00:16:00] You’re from New Jersey, you had Chick Tracts. Why are we not best friends?

Audrey Assad: [00:16:05] I don’t know. Are you from Jersey, too?

Pete Enns: [00:16:06] I don’t even know what’s going on. Anyway. I didn’t mean to interrupt. But I just had to ask. I just had this vision of Chick Tracts, which are another thing I haven’t thought about in about 30 years, so…

Audrey Assad: [00:16:15] I think about them way too much. I still go and visit his website sometimes.

Pete Enns: [00:16:21] Your next album needs to be Chick Tract stuff.

Audrey Assad: [00:16:24] Yea, definitely. Uh… Audrey Assad. One cool chick. Yea, so that’s the pretribulational rapture. So my journey away from that has been just really coming to realize that the Bible is not as simplistic as I have been taught that it was and it was not as easy to interpret as I’ve been taught that it is. But, at the same time, the Bible also, you know–it’s like there’s much more room given to people from different backgrounds and cultures to come to it, not only to know what was meant for this culture of the time but to look at the Bible through their own lens of their culture and their time and sort of create this living cloud of biblical wisdom. And so I just kind of view the Bible as something that came out of the church. That is interpreted by the church over time. And I don’t really think I’m less reverent of the Bible now. I feel like I’m much more reverent of it by not reducing it to a code or a system.

Pete Enns: [00:17:30] And that’s your word–mystery-before. I think, you know, I don’t know. In my mind, those things tie together a little bit. It’s the flexibility and the freedom of not having to be certain and so you get to explore these things a little bit. I want to be clear what you just said. You said something that sounded really interesting about how the Bible sort of comes out of the church, but people have just been interpreting it differently over time.

Audrey Assad: [00:17:59] Yeah, well, you know. I guess I would put it this way. So, the Bible came out of the church, meaning the church assembled a series of books in the–I guess–the 400s. And these letters had been circulating for quite a long time. But there was sort of a council held to sort of set in stone with the canon was. And so the church really took it upon itself to say, like, the Holy Spirit is guiding us. We believe this to be the canon of the scriptures and this it and we’re putting our stamp on it. And I didn’t know that’s how the Bible happened. I don’t know what I thought as a kid. I thought that the Bible fell out of the sky like it is. You know? And I don’t know what I thought, but that’s what I–something like that. And so when I found out that that’s how the Bible was assembled, I thought: oh, like well then who’s responsible for how we think about it? And now like a really staunch Catholic would say only the Catholic interpretation of the Bible is correct. And I never quite got there. I think I see a lot of value in the different approaches that I’ve come across. You know, everything from the Catholic mystical reading of scripture to obviously the more historical readings. And I’ve really appreciated the USCCB, which is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has on their website a Bible online with footnotes and with introductions to each book explaining kind of what type of literature each book is and who may have written it, the different ways you could read it. And so when I opened up the Book of Jonah as a new Catholic on this website and it said this may not have really happened. I was like–excuse me? That was so surprising.

Pete Enns: [00:19:36] They were right. They’re just a bunch of liberals. What am I reading?

Audrey Assad: [00:19:41] I know! So I’ve just grown to appreciate the Bible as the collection that is of different types of writing, wisdom tradition that, yes, contains some historical events for sure, but that isn’t like a textbook or a code of law as much as it is a life story. And that’s kind of how I see it now.

Jared Byas: [00:20:04] We’re sorry to interrupt the podcast, but we want to take just one minute to mention two simple ways to support the work we do with the Bible for Normal People. One–just go to iTunes, rate us, and give us a review, but only if you like us. If you don’t, first I would say reconsider your life choices, but, two, then just ignore this message completely. Two–if you haven’t already, check us out on patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople. There you’ll be able to find ways to join the community, contribute to the discussion, and offer your support at various levels. And last, but not least, we want to give our deepest thanks to some of the members of our producers group. These folks not only email us feedback, they hop on quarterly calls to give us feedback, and have supported us financially. So thanks to Brock Beesley, Nathan Kitchen, Denise Howard, Bob Fabey, Josh Levinson, Chrissy Florence, Kaleb Niedens, Michele Snyder, Shay Bocks, and Greg Belew. We couldn’t do what we do without your help. Now back to the podcast.

Pete Enns: [00:21:06] You know, one thing that’s coming across loud and clear, Audrey, and this isn’t very common actually. You’re a convert to Catholicism from fundamentalism.

Audrey Assad: [00:21:16] Uh huh.

Pete Enns: [00:21:16] And what often happens, at least in my experience, and Jared will agree with this because he has to–he always agrees with everything I say, but–the tendency is when you move from fundamentalism to another, let’s say, system, it’s to sort of bring the fundamentalism with you. And then you see this new thing that you’ve converted to. Now I have the final answer for everything.

Audrey Assad: [00:21:37] Yes. Well, I did do that.

Pete Enns: [00:21:39] For how long? About ten minutes?

Audrey Assad: [00:21:40] No. It was ten years ago I became a Catholic. I want to say it was three years of that, probably. Three/four years.

Pete Enns: [00:21:49] That’s not very long, though. I mean, it’s not.

Audrey Assad: [00:21:50] No, well… right. Well, I think everything was accelerated by the fact that I just had–it was kind of out of nowhere. I just had what I would have called a crisis of faith at a time. Now I would call it a healthy sort of disillusionment and a plunge into the darkness. And I could sort of sense it coming and I didn’t know where it was coming from, but in 2008 I wrote a song that’s actually on my new album that’s coming out in February, called Evergreen. And the song is called Teresa and I wrote it in 2008. It’s a song that kind of takes inspiration from the way that Mother Teresa felt for many many years, which her sort of posthumous journals that were released sort of illuminated that she had gone 20 years without feeling like she heard the voice of God. And I sensed that coming towards me. And in some ways, I had never really heard the voice I was looking for. And I was kind of involved in this fundamentalism thing. I mean, by no choice of my own as a kid, but then later on I sort of clung to it as like, I didn’t hear that voice I wanted to hear. And so this was how I would know, you know, that I was on the path was adhering and committing myself to these really rigid principles and ideas. And that was how I would know that I was in favor. You know, my ideas about God were very bad. And so I kind of thought of him as being in opposition to me almost. And that Jesus kind of was intervening between us. But that if Jesus hadn’t stepped in front of me, God wouldn’t want to look at me. And it was just this whole kind of very sad story I was telling myself. And so…

Pete Enns: [00:23:23] Not a very encouraging story.

Audrey Assad: [00:23:25] No. No. It was really sad. And mixed into all that–I know I’m saying a lot of things–but mixed into all that is the fact that I was suffering from something I didn’t even know existed which is religious OCD, which is called scrupulosity. So not only was I a fundamentalist but I was also obsessive-compulsive about cleansing my conscience, saying the Salvation prayer 100 times a day. Things that I thought you were supposed to be doing. And now I know I was a little sick. I didn’t know that but I… So there’s just a lot there and so I don’t know. At some point in the last seven years, I just went from being sure of things to being sure of nothing. Like absolutely nothing. Definitely to the point of questioning meaning itself. And that was scary because I make my living doing what I do, which is making devotional music and kind of having this spiritual platform. And I just was like petrified by what would happen if I just decided, oh, I don’t believe anything like before. And having to go through that in sort of the public eye was tough–and hide a lot of it–very anxiety-ridden situation. And I had a really great therapist who I’ve been working with this whole time as I’ve gone through it.

Jared Byas: [00:24:31] You know, Audrey, we had Jen Hatmaker on not too long ago. And one of the things we talked about with her–you just mentioning that made me want to ask the question as well. How is that for you? You know, being in the public space and having this following that maybe thought of you in one way wasted some of their belief systems on you in that sense of believing through you and the pressure you felt. How was that, as you changed–what was the reception of the community toward you’re–kind of as you came out in these doubts and this process. Was that a painful process? Did people come around you? What was that like for you?

Audrey Assad: [00:25:08] Well, a lot of people just fell off the map entirely. I had a spiritual director for a season who just stopped returning my phone calls. And that was very hard.

Pete Enns: [00:25:19] You’re a handful, Audrey.

Audrey Assad: [00:25:21] I know. I know. Yeah, apparently he couldn’t hack it, so. You know, stuff like that would happen and be very difficult for me. But then at the same time, there’s this whole public stuff. Like I felt like I was living a sort of double life ,  even though I was trying to be as honest as I could be in a prudent way without being like here’s every little thought in my head at all times. You know? Because if I had done that, I would have ended my career a long time ago probably because I was so lost. But so there was kind of a dynamic starting to happen as I really pressed into like the justice side of Christianity, meaning justice for the poor. As I started to follow Jesus for the first time, which was what it felt like to me. I started to see justice as a huge missing piece in my faith as a young person and really to lean into that and to lean in who, you know, how these all–like these marginalized and underserved and oppressed groups intersect with each other and to start to talk–like sort of talk that way publicly–I started to receive, yes, quite a lot of pushback. But it was the only way I knew to engage with Christianity for a season because I could not engage with it intellectually or honestly. It was a while before I could read about it or think about it and like you know in sort of the same ways that I had growing up. So there was pushback. But I have to say, from a public standpoint, I’ve received a lot of support too. And people are going through that stuff, not just me. I think me being willing to speak up about my own journey here has been, I hope, you know from what people are telling me, a real comfort and help to them to not feel alone when they feel alone in their communities in a lot of ways. So I’ve just been encouraged by that and I keep speaking because I believe it to be valuable in that way.

Jared Byas: [00:27:11] Yeah. It’s interesting, too, Audrey, just you saying that puts the pattern together a little bit where we’ve heard, on a number of occasions and I think it’s true for my story as well, where we sort of say well when we can’t engage Christianity at an intellectual level–we don’t believe these things anymore–we find these, you know, social justice and practices, liturgies, more concrete behavioral things. It’s interesting that we’re so ingrained in the intellectualizing of Christianity that that feels like a deconversion.

Audrey Assad: [00:27:43] I know.

Jared Byas: [00:27:43] Where for other faiths, that would have been like, well, yeah. Kind of no duh. There’s this political part of the faith but, you know, it’s just a testament to how we were raised perhaps that it was so tied to mental assent to oppositions about who God is.

Audrey Assad: [00:27:59] Oh man. I remember when that started falling apart for me because I started to think, wait a second, like once I figured out I had OCD, for example, and I was like wait a minute. All of my mental assent, all of those years, was coming out of sickness. So what’d it even mean? You know? What about people who hear the same thing I do but they’re coming to it with a different brokenness than I have and it means something different to them and they can’t really help that. The intellect, to me, I always saw it was this pristine pure thing that you could exercise with like total clarity and, you know…

Pete Enns: [00:28:35] Objectivity

Audrey Assad: [00:28:36] Yes. And objectivity was something that you just have. You know, you just have it. It’s like not something you grow towards or whatever. And then when it hit me that that’s not really how life works, I thought like oh my God I believed. But what did that even count for? It’s still like an act of the will. It’s still something that I’m coming to with my own sort of lens and context. So just like any other thing I used to decry as being like workspace salvation, I was like no, no, no. This is all the same exact S.H.I. You know? It’s the same exact thing.

Pete Enns: [00:29:15] S.H.I? What’s that?

Audrey Assad: [00:29:15] S.H.I. You can fill in the blank.

Pete Enns: [00:29:18] Oh, there’s another letter. Hold on. Which is it?

Audrey Assad: [00:29:19] I cuss now.

Jared Byas: [00:29:20] Yea, there’s a lot of ship.

Pete Enns: [00:29:20] P .

Audrey Assad: [00:29:20] Yea, bullshirt, as they say on The Good Place. Oh my gosh. Speaking of that–I know this is a total derailment–but I was on Twitter today and this guy had been tweeting about how there’s a debate going on in Catholic circles as to whether it’s a good or a bad idea to watch The Good Place. And I thought, wait, this is a debate I can’t–I can’t–this is too much for me. That’s a great show. Everybody shut up. But, anyway, so yeah. Yeah. I’ve definitely derailed myself. Oh. The intellect. Yeah, it’s an act of the will to believe and it’s a choice that you make that may or may not be objective and it probably isn’t and however you’re believing, it’s not perfect. And so that was a freeing, but also frightening idea to me because I just didn’t know what to do in place of it. You know? Especially when I didn’t believe anymore. I was like, what do I do now? You know?

Jared Byas: [00:30:17] Yeah. And that’s–you know the deconversion–being able to reframe that, at least for me, of saying I’m not converting from Christianity. I’m deconverting from this intellectualism or I’m deconverting from a need for certainty.

Audrey Assad: [00:30:30] Yeah.

Jared Byas: [00:30:30] Kind of making idols of these other things. Going on a new journey of what else is out there.

Audrey Assad: [00:30:36] It’s really jarring to discover you’ve been a Gnostic your whole life and you didn’t know. You know?

Jared Byas: [00:30:42] Right.

Audrey Assad: [00:30:42] Man. I was not prepared emotionally for that. It was very weird.

Pete Enns: [00:30:47] The irony, Audrey, is that, I mean, you’ve expressed something that–again I think many people including Jared and I have experience too–this irony that our whole–our lives–our Christian training when we’re young has been all about this assent. Right? This intellectual assent. But in a context that’s actually somewhat anti-intellectual.

Audrey Assad: [00:31:07] Right. That’s so true.

Pete Enns: [00:31:08] You can’t talk about it. You can’t debate it. So it’s–the word for that–I mean I don’t want to be too harsh here but–there’s a manipulative dimension to that.

Audrey Assad: [00:31:17] Absolutely. Oh my gosh.

Pete Enns: [00:31:17] I would even say brainwashing, although that’s a bit harsh, but it’s totally…

Audrey Assad: [00:31:21] Well, my therapist would disagree with you. She’s a Christian. But we were going through how it worked at my church and she said, you know what this is. This is the cult. This is a cult you’re describing to me where you live in your head but you’re not allowed to question. And you’re able to be manipulated because of that. Because all of the fear held over your head, if you don’t belong or be part of this ,  if you diverge one inch from this thing we’re telling you. This is the code. This is the path. This is how you do this. And if you go to the right or the left, you’re out. And so your–belonging-you know Brenee Brown talks a lot of belonging and I’m just reading through “Brave in the Wilderness” right now. And when I think about how much it means to a young person to belong and then to be sort of taught from the beginning that what it requires from you is absolute adherence to this way of thinking. Yeah, that’s cultlike. That’s definitely manipulation.

Pete Enns: [00:32:19] Yea, that’s true and that’s not the gospel way. I think we would all agree on that. And you know, it’s just so interesting to hear this story because it’s such a common one. And, you know, when you felt that like–I don’t know what to–I’m–this is scary. I don’t know what to believe anymore. It’s almost like I guess that had to happen because you had to–you tabled the intellectual side of things and moved towards practice like Jared was saying before. And I think so many have found that to be–and of course you were always told that’s wrong.

Audrey Assad: [00:32:49] Mmhmm.

Pete Enns: [00:32:50] That’s not how it works. Right? But then you start reading the Bible and it’s faith working itself out in love. And faith doesn’t always mean, in fact it rarely if ever means intellectual assent, it means trusting and actually acting well towards the other. It’s being faithful to other people. And then you start seeing, oh goodness, there’s a whole body dimension here that you know the mind doesn’t–and our minds are wonderful things for the most part, but that is not the center of the seat of the Christian faith. That’s all of us. That’s what we do and it’s…well, for you it’s creativity. That’s a big part of the expression of the faith for you and for me and Jared, it might be some other things. It’s just leaving that mono-dimensional view of the faith which is rooted in simplistic arguments that only work if you don’t open your eyes and look around.

Jared Byas: [00:33:40] And with that, maybe a question for you, Audrey, just as an artist. How did this play out in that side of your life? As your faith has transformed into new avenues and new pathways, how has that affected at all how you see yourself as an artist and the creative work that you do?

Audrey Assad: [00:33:59] Well, I consider what I do to be a very it’s a very mystical thing with very pragmatic reality. The music and the inspiration comes in the midst of all of the little mundane stuff I do to be ready for it when it happens. And that’s anything from practicing to just writing down notes and ideas as they come to my head. Or reading. Or all the things that I do to keep myself prepared and then inspiration will strike sometimes and it’ll be–sometimes it’s truly like a song that really happens in five minutes and I’m like: where did that come from? And sometimes it’s work and it takes weeks and months and years to finish it. But all that to say, I’ve found such a refuge in music because it really–even when you come at it with your–okay, I’m going to backtrack. The Calvinists have found a way to take songs and just make them incredibly… what’s the word I’m looking for?

Pete Enns: [00:34:58] That word again you used before?

Audrey Assad: [00:35:00] Yeah. Uh…

Pete Enns: [00:35:02] The three-letter word you used before. Is that what you want?

Audrey Assad: [00:35:05] Yeah, there’s some bullshirt going on there for sure. I don’t mean to be mean. I just, you know, when I sometimes I hear these new hymns that are coming out and I think, oh man, we’re really addicted to this way of codifying God. And I’ve been guilty of that I’m sure. But as I’ve grown, as I’ve changed and evolved, I’m seeing this music that I make as an opportunity to create and facilitate space for people to contemplate God and contemplate their own pain. And to experience those things in a space of freedom and then to do with that what they will. Do with it what they will and I see myself as someone who is building rooms for people to sit in different spots on their journey. And every time I go something, I build a room around it and then I walk forward and I build another one. And people who come after me can use those spaces for their own needs. And so that’s kind of how I see what I do.

Pete Enns: [00:36:02] That’s a great way of putting it. Man oh man. Building rooms and giving people space to not be certain and to figure things out. Almost giving people permission by modeling it for them, I guess, is what you’re doing. Maybe that’s one way to look at it.

Audrey Assad: [00:36:18] I hope so.

Pete Enns: [00:36:19] Well, you are. Because a lot of people say so. And not everybody agrees with anybody and everybody. You probably have people who think you’re crazy, but that’s okay. Right?

Audrey Assad: [00:36:29] Yea, it is.

Pete Enns: [00:36:29] If there aren’t people saying that, we’re probably doing something wrong anyway.

Audrey Assad: [00:36:33] Yeah.

Pete Enns: [00:36:34] You don’t get hate mail? I bet you don’t get hate mail.

Audrey Assad: [00:36:36] I have. I have. Yes.

Pete Enns: [00:36:38] No.

Audrey Assad: [00:36:38] I have. I’ve gotten hate mail and death threats, as a matter of fact.

Pete Enns: [00:36:42] Have you gotten death threats?

Audrey Assad: [00:36:43] I have. Only once, but was real and it was coming from somewhere near where I was touring and I had to have policemen at every show for like a week.

Pete Enns: [00:36:52] Oh my goodness.

Audrey Assad: [00:36:54] Yea.

Pete Enns: [00:36:54] I’m glad I didn’t show up at your house.

Audrey Assad: [00:36:56] I know.

Pete Enns: [00:36:58] That’s terrible though. I mean, was it just a crazy person or…?

Audrey Assad: [00:37:03] I don’t know. They were definitely. . there was something off, but I…

Pete Enns: [00:37:06] Obviously there’s something off if they’re doing that but was it something like you wrote in a…was it something that you wrote in…like you’ve written stuff in Christianity today, I think. Right? And a few other places. Was it something like that or was it a song, or just…

Audrey Assad: [00:37:19] No, they said something to the effect of like you’re on a “nosy bench”.

Pete Enns: [00:37:23] Okay.

Audrey Assad: [00:37:24] And get out of my business. And stop telling my story publicly. Who knows, it might have been a song I wrote or something.

Pete Enns: [00:37:30] Oh .  Something threatened him, probably.

Audrey Assad: [00:37:34] Yeah.

Pete Enns: [00:37:35] Oh gosh. And on that note… I haven’t gotten a death threat yet. I feel a little bit left out now, but umm… Well you know, Audrey, it’s really nice talking with you for both of us. And there are so many times when I wanted to stop you and say, hey, we do that too from our own little world here. And I think there really is this tremendous overlap, I think, in your experience and in ours and in building a community and trying to give people space. And I think there are so many people out there doing that now. Thank you, internet. That allows that. And there are so many pilgrims out there, I think, who have been taught a certain way and they realize–I mean I have kids–and who realize that that doesn’t make sense anymore of their lives. And the question is, well, now what? I guess Christianity is nonsense. No, it’s deep. It’s broad. It goes back to ancient times. And there were some smart people living back then who weren’t simplistic thinkers and working through a lot of problems. Sometimes I just think that we have to keep just telling this broad Christian story. Like Jared said before, you’re not deconverting from Christianity. You’re deconverting from a sociological construct that is tribalistic. That’s not what this is about.

Audrey Assad: [00:38:59] Right. Agreed. Yea. Absolutely.

Pete Enns: [00:39:01] Well, one last thing. I’m going to say this because I can, because it’s my podcast. My daughter sent me a link to “I Shall Not Want” a few years ago. Which, people, you need to listen to this song. It just hit me at a moment when I absolutely needed–it was just a down moment and I really really needed to hear it. And I said I don’t know who this person is with this weird name but she’s Catholic, but she doesn’t have a Catholic last name but I want to find out who she is. And it was just a wonderful song that was authentic and real. And I said okay here’s somebody who I think gets what I’m thinking about too. So it was it was a nice little connection from a distance. I’m just glad my daughter had the presence of mind to send me that so.

Audrey Assad: [00:39:48] That’s awesome.

Pete Enns: [00:39:49] I want to thank you for that and for the other stuff that you do as well.

Audrey Assad: [00:39:52] Yea, you’re welcome.

Jared Byas: [00:39:52] And speaking of that, Audrey, as we come to the end of our time. What else are… You mentioned Evergreen as an album but say a little bit more about that and the upcoming tour, projects. Where can we point people to?

Audrey Assad: [00:40:04] So evergreen will be everywhere February 23. And we are super excited around here about it because it’s my first record of full like original material since Fortunate Fall came out in 2013 and that was mostly because I just really couldn’t write anything for quite a while as I was going through all this. So yeah, you can find out more about it at audreyassad.com. I’m really active on social media too. Twitter and Facebook. I’m really pumped and I hope it’ll be another room for people to sit in.

Jared Byas: [00:40:36] Excellent and will be there’ll be a tour upcoming with that?

Audrey Assad: [00:40:40] In the fall. I have just had a baby so I’m taking some time off from touring. But yeah. So we’ll be there in a few cities this fall.

Pete Enns: [00:40:49] East coast at all?

Audrey Assad: [00:40:50] I’m sure.

Pete Enns: [00:40:51] I hope so. That’d be great.

Audrey Assad: [00:40:53] Yeah. Excellent.

Jared Byas: [00:40:54] Thank you so much for being on and for sharing your story just so openly and authentically. We really appreciate it.

Audrey Assad: [00:41:01] Thank you for having me.

Pete Enns: [00:41:02] Thank you Audrey. See ya. Thanks for listening everyone and remember to check out Audrey’s new album “Evergreen” and you can find out about Audrey on her website, audreyassad.com, which is very informative. A lot of great stuff. Jared, she sells merchandise. Why can’t we sell merchandise?

Jared Byas: [00:41:21] We could.

Pete Enns: [00:41:21] We could but nobody would buy it because we have no talent.

Jared Byas: [00:41:24] We’ll a thousand mugs in our basement.

Pete Enns: [00:41:26] Oh, here’s a little trivia too Jared. Another thing to motivate you. When Audrey went out on her own and recorded her album “Fortunate Fall,” which is a very interesting title. She went on her own and she had a Kickstarter campaign. And in 50 hours, she raised $40,000. Because there are people who really really believe in her. And I want you to believe in her too because she does great stuff. So you have the website and she’s going to be touring in the fall of 2018. She had a baby in October, I think. Her second one so she’s chilling out for a while.

Jared Byas: [00:41:58] I love to see you fan- boying here over Audrey Assad. I like that.

Pete Enns: [00:42:00] She’s awesome. I know. She’s awesome. So anybody who helps me is cool.

Jared Byas: [00:42:05] Excellent. And also in addition to purchasing Audrey’s album, head to thebiblefornormalpeople.com Or peteenns.com and just check out some of the articles there. Were always interested and engaged in this conversation about faith and questions and doubt and primarily: how does the Bible fit into that? How do we read it? What do we do with that? If you wanted to go even further than that, please check us out on patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople. Lots more opportunities there to engage on Slack. We hope to see you there.

Pete Enns: [00:42:34] See you next week, folks.

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What Archaeologists Do & Why It Matters with Cynthia Shafer-Elliot

Interview with with Cynthia Shafer-Elliott: What Archaeologists Do & Why It Matters

February 19, 2018

Archaeologist Cynthia Shafer-Elliott turns a 2D Bible into a 3D picture by digging up artifacts from everyday ancient Israelite life. These were real people with real habits and customs that we never really see on the pages of the Bible.

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Read the transcript

Pete: Okay, welcome listeners, to another episode and welcome to Cynthia Shafer-Elliott for being our guest today. Hi Cynthia, how it going?

Cynthia: Well, how are you?

Pete: You’re from California.

Cynthia: I am, and it just started winter, like, the other day.

Pete: Oh, what’s winter like? 70 degrees?

Cynthia: It has been, yeah, but now it’s raining so I feel really bad for you all as you had that big artic blast.

Pete: We did, it was horrible.

Jared: We’re like Game of Thrones; our winter lasts years.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: Yeah, yeah. A thousand years actually, so…

Cynthia: Oh, you poor people.

Pete: Hey, listen, Cynthia, in case you haven’t noticed you are an archeologist.

Cynthia: I am, yeah.

Pete: You are. You know, I studied that a little bit in graduate school, but I’m not an archeologist myself. I don’t like getting dirty –

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: And I don’t like getting up early. So, apart from those two things, help us, just, you know, what do you do? What do archeologists do? And that’s something that, you know, if you think of it as Indiana Jones or something like that, but –

Cynthia: Yeah…

Pete: That’s not it. But what do you do and why do you do it?

Cynthia: Yeah, you know, I have to explain this to my students all the time because I’m trying to bribe them to come with me to Israel to dig. So, what we do is we’re trying to understand ancient Israel better. And we do that by, well, I do that by both examining the biblical text and examining what we call material culture. And material culture is all that physical stuff that they left behind that could be buildings, architecture, features of a house, say like, an oven or a cistern that could be what we could call the artifacts that they left behind, like pots and oil lamps and things like that. And so, what we’re trying to do is uncover what they’ve left behind in order to understand ancient Israel better. So, we do have to get up very early, because we’re there in the summer and it’s very hot. Yeah. So, we work early hours and it’s not for the faint hearted. You know, it’s hard work. It’s kind of like akin to the academic fat camp –



Where you go and you’re working so hard and you’re using muscles that you didn’t remember that you had and you are having a hard time because it’s hot and dirty and you’re in the sun, but at the same time, you are the first person to uncover something that hasn’t been seen or touched in thousands of years. Yeah!

Pete: What’s the most interesting thing or exciting thing that you’ve ever uncovered, or maybe you were a part of a team that uncovered something?

Cynthia: Yeah, I get asked that a lot. I think all of us in that field get asked this question a lot. It’s a really interesting question though, because what I like is probably not what most people find exciting, but I would think what most people would find exciting is, I was part of a one-season on a Venetian Tomb excavation back in 2002 I think, yeah. I think that’s when it was, with Eliat Mazar, and this tomb, this little tomb hadn’t been excavated and it also hadn’t been robbed. And so, we had this little tomb full of artifacts that people would take to, when they’re revering their ancestors. So, these are high end materials. These aren’t everyday artifacts like cooking pots or something, but these are fragile or precious things, like a metal sword or bronze sword, excuse me, or some scarabs, or jewelry, and then all this, if I can say this, all the skeletal remains too, but we’re not supposed to talk about that.


So, but that’s really, that was really exciting, and the fact that it was right on the Mediterranean probably didn’t hurt either, but for me personally, it’s when we’re, I’m right now, I’m excavating houses and one of the things I love, it sounds –

Pete: So am I, you should see my basement.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: Horrible. Anyway…

Cynthia: One of the things I love that I find, as simple as this sounds, is sometimes you find a handle of a vessel, like a jug or a pot or something, and while the vessel itself was wheel made, the handles are pressed on usually by hand. And so, sometimes you see and feel the potter’s thumbprints and sometimes you even find their thumbprint and to see their thumbprint on this vessel, it just, it takes my breath away every time. I think it’s just, wow, look at this, reminds me that somebody made this pot and it begets all those questions of who made it and why and what did they do with it and why did they leave this behind? And for me, it’s the stories behind the artifacts, behind the architecture, the stories of the people that used these items and lived during this time that I find the most fascinating.

Jared: So, at some point we’ll talk more about some of those findings and what does that mean for your understanding of daily life in ancient Israel and the time periods that you studied, but maybe talk some about how does biblical archeology impact how we read or have read the Bible. Like, what’s the interplay between the scriptures and archeology?

Cynthia: That’s another really good question, and depending on who you ask, you’ll have a very different answer. But part of the issue that a lot of us in our field have to answer is kind of even how you phrased the question using that term “biblical archeology.” You have people within the field who say, “well, yes, you should be calling it biblical archeology and you should be digging with your trowel in one hand and your Bible in the other.” And then you have others who say, “absolutely not!” Because archeology is its own discipline and you have no other archeology that uses a text to define or interpret its answers. So, people often think that archeology is, it’s more scientific, there’s less interpretation than say, in biblical studies, but I would say that’s not the case.


I would say that there is maybe just as much interpretation within archeology as there is in biblical studies and as much as I love doing both biblical studies and archeology, I understand that they’re, and I try very hard to notice that they’re two different disciplines, and that these disciplines need to be done in their own ways and the interpretation from those studies and some of those artifacts need to be done in an appropriate methodological way. Now, that’s not to say though, that you can’t use the Bible to help us understand the physical world of ancient Israel or vice versa, that you can’t use archeology to help us understand the Bible. You absolutely can! But I think it has to be done so carefully that you can’t just be digging in Israel and say, “oh, I found,” let’s see for example, “I found this gate for this city and we think it might be from the time of the Iron Age, the Iron Age I. And so, therefore, we know Solomon built gates, so therefore, we think this is Solomon’s gate.” You know, that’s kind of a big jump. You have to have a little bit more evidence than that. So, even kind of in that crosshairs between those two disciplines, you absolutely want to use everything at your disposal to understand ancient Israel better. You want to use Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, you want to use other artifacts, like, textual artifacts like ancient near-Eastern texts. Also, archeology and iconography, which is representational art, like, figurines and things like that, it’s my opinion we want to use everything at our disposal, but we also want to do so carefully that we’re not allowing these other disciplines to kind of take our interpretation into a direction that maybe the actual physical evidence isn’t, or maybe is going in. Does that make sense?

Pete: Oh, yeah. It makes a lot of sense. Cynthia, you used the phrase I think, Iron Age I?

Cynthia: Yeah, sorry.

Pete: Explain that. Explain, you know, the epics, the eras, the stages that you archeologists have to work with all the time and maybe how they overlap with the biblical story a little bit if that’s possible?

Cynthia: Yeah, you know, depending on who you read or which scholar, archeologist you talk to, those dates are going to fluctuate a little bit, especially with, when you think of possibly very early Israel. Those dates are not set in stone because we realize that some things transition a lot longer than other things. So basically, we break down, just like in any history in any archeology, we’ve got different historical time periods, or archeological time periods that we look at ancient Israel. And the time period that most seems to represent when Israel would have existed is the Iron Age, and the Iron Age can be further subdivided into smaller ages like Iron I, Iron II, some even say Iron III, but some would call Iron III by a different name. So, it kind of depends on who you read and you know, what kind of school you belong to, but Israel is fairly firmly planted in the Iron Age. Now, when Israel comes on the scene and how they come on the scene is another question, but for me personally, the time period I’m most interested in is the Second Iron Age, and that’s roughly from around 1000 onto when Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 by the Babylonians.

Pete: And Iron Age I, that’s 1200, right? 1200 to about 1000?

Cynthia: Right. And that’s a pretty small time period, but that transition, that time period, early Israel is still very much debated by archeologists and biblical scholars on how Israel came on the scene and when, and so that’s a whole big discussion. But, yeah, so Iron I is roughly from 1200 – 1000, Iron II is roughly from 1000-586, and then you go on into the, you know, Neo-Babylonian periods then Persian and so on.

Pete: Yeah. Yeah, it’s, you know, when you get to the origins of Israel, I guess, one reason why scholars debate that back in Iron I around 1200 is because there isn’t a lot of archeological evidence, right?


Cynthia: Right, correct.

Pete: Yeah. That’s a shame.

Cynthia: It is a shame, because as, you know, historians and archeologists, we want as much evidence as possible and unfortunately, we don’t get a whole lot outside of the Bible. What we do know is the earliest mention of a people group called Israel is from, outside of the Bible, is from a stele called the Merneptah stele. And Merneptah was a pharaoh of Egypt after Ramses II I believe, and he did a military campaign into Canaan. And in this stele, which is a stone monument, it’s a victory monument, in this victory monument he talks about this campaign where he destroys a few city states. He names Ashkelon, but also names a people group called Israel, and this is our first mention of a people group called Israel in what becomes known later as the land of Israel, and that’s from about, I think the stele dates from around 1207 BCE. And then we don’t have extrabiblical anchor for King David until the Tel Dan stele was found. And the Tel Dan stele doesn’t date until the 9th century, which is after David would have existed. But the stele, again, a stone monument erected by Hazael, King of Aram-Damascus talks about his campaign against Israel, Judah, and he mentions Beit David or the House of David, which could mean the dynasty of David and that’s our, and that’s from the 9th century. So, what’s interesting is because of those two artifacts, we have the earliest reference of Israel with the Merneptah stele, and then we have the earliest reference to the kingdom of Israel established by David, which provides a solid beginning and end for the emergence of Israel and a kingdom called Israel. And so, unfortunately, we don’t get a lot of monumental type artifacts that talk about this people group called Israel or this kingdom called Israel or Judah or talking about David or Solomon, and that’s the stuff that most people like to hear about is the monumental stuff.

Jared: Right.

Cynthia: Yeah! So, most of what we do isn’t the monumental. It’s most of the, you know, “oh hey, I found this pot!”


Jared: So, before we go to kind of the pots and pans of everyday life, I think it would be good to even talk about some of that and some of the interesting things there. But can you just replay, because you used a lot of language I think is pretty common in archeology. The stele and the tels, Tel Dan, you mentioned, can you just rehearse real quick that lesson of those languages, like what’s a stele, what’s a tel, and maybe if there’s other common language that you guys as, that you as archeologists would use to describe places or things, that might be helpful to orient us.

Cynthia: Right. The term that you would need to know is the word “tel.” And tel being a not like a poker-tell, but basically a hill, a mound, it’s an artificial mound and you find them all throughout, you know, Israel and Southern Levant. And the Southern Levant is a geographical territory that Israel belongs to, so that would include the modern-day states of Israel, West Bank in Gaza, Palestine, Jordan, southern parts of Lebanon and Syria. And so, a tel is basically a artificial mound that they realized back in the pioneering days of archeology of ancient Israel that these mounds are basically the remains of layers of a buried city or town and that when we excavate them, you are basically going back in time. So, the most recent occupation of that city is at the top and the further down you excavate, you are going through the different layers of when that city or town existed and what was left behind.

Jared: So, how many tels would there, just a scope that we’d be talking about in this region that archeologists work on?

Cynthia: Oh geez, that’s a really good question and one I don’t know the answer to. But there’s tons.

Jared: So, it’s many, many, there’s a high volume.


Cynthia: Yeah, there’s a high volume and they range in size, you know. You’ve got some very small ones that maybe it was just a little village that existed for a short amount of time, and then you have some really large ones, like Lachish. Where Lachish was the second most important city in the kingdom of Judah and it was occupied for, you know, many, many, many centuries. It’s just a huge site. So, when we excavate, most of the time we’re excavating on these tels, and most archeologists though, we realize, well, it’s one reason why it’s so laborious is you’re moving all this dirt from all of these different layers and your wheelbarrow skills get really good taking care of all this dirt. But, we basically have a very slow methodological process, which is why excavations take so long because you have a process and you have a question your, or time period that you’re trying to concentrate on, but you have all these other layers before your time period. So, for instance, I’m interested in the Second Iron Age, like we already talked, which is roughly the time of the divided monarchy, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And that’s the time period I’m most interested in, but the site I’m digging in Tel Halif, that site was occupied after the Iron Age II, it was occupied during the late Roman, excuse me, even before that the Persian and late Roman Byzantine, and so we have to go through those other layers and treat those other layers like they’re just as important as the layer we’re interested in. So, we have to document everything, take heights and measurements and keep everything and analyze everything. So, it’s a really lengthy process but when you get to a tel and you realize that these are layers of a buried city.

Jared: Stay tuned for more Bible for Normal People.

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Pete: So, how do you know when you are? You dig down, and the further down you dig, the further back in time you go. How can archeologists tell what century they’re in –

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: Or what age they’re in, whether Iron Age or Bronze Age or whatever?

Cynthia: Sure. The biggest indicator that we use is pottery. So, the pottery just changes over time. So, we call that typology or pottery typology, how those types change. So, the example I usually give in class is let’s say we talked into a room and we had all these different cell phones in a box, and we said you need to put these in chronological order. And you would more than likely do a really good job at putting those phones in order from when cell phones began to today because cell phones, when they first started, they were actually car phones and they were really big and they had these huge antennas and then they get to a flip phone and a smart phone and, you know, they kind of evolve over time and pottery evolved over time. And so, when we look at, let’s say, a jug, we know by looking at the handle, the rim, and the base of that jug, we can tell what time period it’s from because time periods have very certain features of their pottery.

Jared: And to clarify, I mean, I’m just clarifying with you, but in my head, pottery seems like a strange, like, décor element. But back then, it would have been the basic building blocks of domestic life, right?

Cynthia: Right, and you have pottery everywhere. You have broken pieces, which we call shards, sometimes you’ll have sometimes whole vessels, or we put vessels back together again. And so, if you were to, say, look at oil lamps and oil lamps are the little lamps that you would put oil in to help see at night. And they change, they evolved over time. They went from being just a simple bowl with like a slight pinch all the way to being more enclosed with decoration. And so, when you see these oil lamps, you see how they refined, how they made these lamps, maybe they realized that if they made them with multiple spouts, they’d have, they could see better or maybe there were influenced by other people and so, we look at pottery typically to date things and that’s one way that we specially do it on the digs, like, hands on when we’re excavating.


We say okay, we’re looking at all the pottery we excavated today, we’re looking at all these pieces, the indicative pieces like the rims and the handles and the bases or if it happens to have decoration on it. We look at those pieces and we say, okay, this is very clearly from the late Bronze Age, or this is very clearly Persian because it has very distinguishing features from those time periods.

Pete: Yeah. Pottery just the everyday stuff that, you know, you might not think much of and broken pieces and all that they can tell a tale of the past.

Cynthia: Mm hmm.

Pete: Well, you’re obviously very excited about it.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: What’s wrong with you? Anyway. Getting up early and digging, but I imagine you talk about this with your students a lot too, but what are, you know, the benefits of knowing some things about everyday life in the ancient world? And I want to try to really ask that question more succinctly – maybe they could be theological benefits or just faith benefits, you know, like, has this changed you at all and in terms of how you think of the nature of Christian faith by digging things up out of the ground?

Cynthia: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think you can be involved in this and not have it impact you. When I first started excavating, it was history that I could feel, history that I could touch, it was that tangible connection to the past. And I feel that very profoundly still, like, when I was talking about the fingerprints on the pottery, and I think it connects us to the people, our own spiritual ancestors in ways that we may not realize how it can, because you’re there, you’re uncovering this stuff and you think, these are the people that the Hebrew Bible talks about, these are the people who were connected with their kingdom. I mean, the site I’m at right now is a site called Tel Halif, it’s in what would’ve been the kingdom of Judah and it was destroyed by the Assyrians in 701 when they came down to Judah after they conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. And to think about these people fled this house because the enemy was at the gate and it was either flee or be killed. And when I think about their lives and I think about that I’m handling what’s left of their physical existence, their daily lives, that touches me in a way that I think, gosh, no, that’s not gonna happen for me when I’m dead! I think about how those people lived and how their story is still being told and I wonder what story am I telling with my life and how was that affecting not only my own spiritual journey, but those that I encounter on a regular basis and it really makes me wonder if what I’m doing is going to be as profound as what I find that those people left behind.

Jared: That’s really well put, Cynthia. And maybe you can go more in depth in just, you know, you talked about their life and the things that you’re uncovering. What was family life like in the Iron Age, like, what have you learned about these people that are written about in the Hebrew Bible that are living these stories out? What was life like?

Cynthia: Yeah, you know, it’s, archeology helps us a lot because the biblical text, the Hebrew Bible, it wasn’t, we don’t get a lot of daily life stuff in it. The narratives, the end things that we have in the Hebrew Bible, they’re mostly talking about significant or monumental people, places, events, and things and sometimes we get a glimpse of what daily life would’ve been like, but that’s not the point of the scriptures, we’re not going to find a collection of recipes in there, you know? As much as I would love that. So, when we excavate these houses and we’re focusing on daily life, so we want to shift our attention from what historically has been within archeology of ancient Israel has been the focus, has been the monumental, the temples, the palaces, the city gates. All of those reflecting the elite people and that’s really interesting, but I’m interested in the everyday, your average ancient Israelite man, woman, and child. What was their life like?


Cynthia: And so we, when we excavate we need to shift from the monumental things to the everyday, and that would be the home. And so, at Halif we’re doing what we call household archeology where we’re focusing on houses primarily from the 8th century, so, within the Second Iron Age, this would be the time of King Hezekiah of Judah and Isaiah the prophet. And we’re uncovering their lives and when I’m studying what we find and then also what we can learn from the biblical text, I find that daily life was much more, can’t decide if I want to choose the word complex or simple.


But you hear –

Pete: Yeah, they mean the same thing.

Cynthia: Yeah. You hear from people who keep talking about the patriarchy within the text, right, and we hear a lot about that, and there have been scholars who have been doing this work far longer than I have, and I primarily think of Carol Myers from Duke University, where if you are focusing your attention more to the daily life, the social structure would have been less patriarchal. In fact, she would call it heterarchy, where depending on the circumstances, there is more room for negotiation and roles of power and authority within the household. If we look at the household level, who was part of that household? Well, that would be a multi-generational family. Grandparents, their married son and his family, that family could include unmarried daughters or aunts, it could include his married sons and their children, it could include hired workers and servants and all sorts of people that were related or maybe not related but were working together on the household farm, if you will. And when you take a look at the household and just daily life, you realize that we are putting on them this notion of, I think what people would call gender roles, that people in ancient Israel, any ancient society really, if their one focus on a day to day basis is survival, you would probably not have that so-called luxury of gender roles, that men do this and women do that.

Pete: You get everybody on board.

Cynthia: Yeah! Everybody on board! Especially in times of planting and harvest and if you think about it too, when the men were called to war, the women would be left behind at the house and they had to be able to do everything, because, they had to. You know? It wasn’t, oh, I’ll wait ‘til Joseph gets home and have him do it. No! Everyone had to participate regardless of your age, regardless of your sex, regardless of any other differentials for the survival of the family. And I think that keeps being the one thing I find as I’m studying these households in this daily life is, we keep putting things on it that we’re saying, oh, it’s part of our society or we’re living biblically. Well, what does that mean?


What does biblical worldview mean and which worldview are you talking about? I mean, are you…yeah! Whose worldview? And if you really want to talk about what life was like in ancient Israel, I’d be more than happy to have that conversation, but I don’t think it’s gonna sound like the way a lot of people think it would.

Pete: Yeah, you know, we sometimes think, and maybe I shouldn’t generalize but I’m right anyway –

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: You know, I’m, people think of, you know, ancient Israelites as sort of running around with their Bibles –

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: And all, you know, listening to the voice of God of what God is telling them about worship, this, and that, but it’s probably not the case.

Cynthia: Right!

Pete: I mean, would you agree that they’re just trying to survive and –

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: I sort of think of like, in our contemporary culture, people who just sort of go to church because that’s what they do –

Cynthia: Mm hmm.

Pete: But they’re not actually thinking theologically about everything.

Cynthia: Right, yeah.

Pete: Which is a little unsettling, because you read these things like everybody is supposed to know this and, well, they don’t. You know, one thing I remember, this blew me away when I was in graduate school and I took my one archeology course because, as I’ve mentioned, I don’t want to get dirty or get up early.

Cynthia: Who’d you take that with?


Pete: Larry Stager.

Cynthia: Oh yeah.

Pete: Who just passed away a week ago or so, yeah, right around Christmas time. Yeah, I had my course with him which was wonderful. But I remember these figurines, these fertility figurines –

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: That apparently thousands of them were found.

Cynthia: Oh yeah.

Pete: In your time period –

Cynthia: Yeah. 

Pete: Well, you’re not supposed to worship with idols.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: But it seems like that was a pretty common practice!

Cynthia: Yeah.

Pete: What were Israelites like? Well, they probably did that because that’s just what you do when you’re religious.

Cynthia: Right, exactly. We find those figurines; they’re mostly found in domestic or households in houses.

Pete: Yeah, like up on the mantle or something like we would have.

Cynthia: Yeah, right. And so, when you think about it you think, well, these figurines, some people think they might represent the Canaanite fertility goddess Asherah, others have argued that it could be really a number of fertility goddesses, but they also, you see them in different forms and most of them are female figurines. There are some male figurines, there are some animal figurines, but the discussion is that these figurines were used in Israelite households to worship at home, they all didn’t go to Jerusalem every week to go to the temple, you know. Most of the time it was done at home. And that the fertility of the people and of the land was of utmost importance, and if you’re trying to just survive, then that’s what you’re going to pray for. You’re going to pray for rain, you’re going to pray that your wife is able to give birth to a healthy child that’s going to be able to help on the farm. And you can imagine if you’re this, you know, I give this kind of story to my students where if you can imagine you’re, you know, an Israelite farmer and say, your Canaanite neighbor, his field is doing really well but yours isn’t. And you say to your Canaanite neighbor, “hey, how is your field doing so well?” And they say, “oh, well, I pray every day to Asherah, and I, you know, offer libation offerings to her.” And you go, “huh, okay, well, I worship Yahweh, but I’ll also say a prayer to Asherah too.” And you know, Pete, that really throws people off a lot of times when you say, well, they worshipped Yahweh and. And I tell them, well, I ask them, I say, well, how much of the Old Testament have you read?


Pete: So you’re snarky too? Okay, good.

Cynthia: Yeah, a little snarky. Because it says it very often that the Israelites sometimes worshipped the Lord one-on-one, just really well, and other times they didn’t. And then archeologically, we have inscriptions like they found at Kuntillet Ajrud, which is a site way down south in Sinai where it talks about an inscription that says Yahweh and his Asherah.

Pete: So sort of his wife.

Cynthia: Right. That they were practicing, you know, worship of Yahweh and. And the biblical text dates it, you just gotta make sure, not a lot of people read the Old Testament anymore.

Pete: I think about the Ten Commandments, you know, and you shall have no other gods before me and no idols.

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: We read that today and we say, well, obviously, how hard could that be?

Cynthia: Yeah!

Pete: That’s counterintuitive in the ancient world.

Cynthia: Yeah.

Pete: That’s asking an awful lot of people to have this belief that only one deity is worthy of any sort of worship because, you know, your neighbors’ fields are doing pretty well and yours aren’t. I mean, I think that really drives home the offense of belief in Yahweh in an ancient culture. It’s not an easy thing, like, don’t you remember all those old stories? Don’t you guys see miracles every five minutes or something like that? They don’t see anything!

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: They’re just trying to hang on, and I, to me, that’s a humanizing part about what you do.

Cynthia: Yeah, it is.

Pete: It really brings that out in a way text, these texts that we read are not equipped to do that.

Cynthia: Yeah, exactly, and I, again, the texts are, their purpose isn’t to, the purpose is, you know, people talk about how they’re written by elite urban men, and so, it’s not like they’re purposefully trying to ignore just women, for instance, but they’re ignoring your average person. They’re ignoring the daily life of the average men, women, and children, except for when it intersects with the story that they’re trying to tell. And so, that’s where archeology really is helpful, because it gives that humanizing view of the past.

Jared: Yeah, absolutely. Well, we’re coming to the end of our time, Cynthia, so thank you so much for really educating us, I think, on archeology and the basics of what it is you do and why it matters and intersects our faith. Is there any projects that you’re currently working on or where can people find you online if they want to learn more about the work that you’re interested in and the work you’re doing?

Cynthia: We welcome people on our excavations, you don’t have to be a student, you don’t have to have any prior experience or knowledge, you just have to have a good attitude and be somewhat physically able –

Jared: Well, Pete would be out on both accounts.

Pete: [Laughter]

Yeah, right.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

The attitude part, yes.

Pete: Exactly.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Jared: You’re not allowed after, you know, talking trash about it.

Pete: Yeah, well.

Jared: That’s great! So where would people go to know how do to that? Like, I’m sure they shouldn’t just buy a ticket to Israel and try to find you.

Cynthia: Well, they can contact me directly, you know, my Jessup email is all over the place, but also if the BAR, Biblical Archeology Review, their dig issue I think just came out. They do an issue every January just for digs and they give a list of the digs that are going to be going on the following summer, and to give you a breakdown of what time period they’re on, what they’re working on, and how much it costs, and what the accommodations are like, and all those sorts of details and when they’re digging and how to apply to go on a dig. And they also have some scholarships you can apply for too.

Jared: That’s excellent, I’m thinking maybe I should.

Cynthia: You should! You can come with me.

Jared: I have four little kids, so I don’t mind getting up in the morning or getting dirty.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: Or being away for six months.

Jared: Exactly!

Cynthia: Well, digs are normally, you have to go, usually they want you to volunteer for at least two weeks and the digs are usually four weeks long.

Jared: Oh, man. Well, that’ll be fortunate if I say I have to go for two weeks. That’d be great.

Cynthia: Yeah, I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter, I’m on Instagram and all my digs and when I take students or tours over to Israel –

Jared: Do you Instagram your actual digs?

Cynthia: I do.

Jared: Do you take pictures and post them?

Cynthia: Mm hmm, yeah. I’ll put them on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. You know, I’ve got my profile up at https://jessup.edu/ and projects, yeah, I’m always working on projects. So, last year The Five Minute Archeologist book that I edited came out and that’s been great because it’s one of those books that is trying to help people who are interested in archeology of ancient Israel in particular, what do we do and why and who pays for this and do you get to keep things and the idea was to take questions that people often ask of archeologists when they meet them, like, on the plane or something. And so, there’s about thirty different archeologists and there’s really short essays in there. But the next couple of things I’m working on is, one will be writing and analyzing the House at Halif that I’ve been excavating for the last four years. So, I’ll be at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem there doing that, and then I’m coediting a project with Janling Fu from Harvard and Carol Myers from Duke on “A Handbook of Food in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel.” We’re just getting started on that, that will be with T&T Clark.

Pete: That’s great, thank you Cynthia. That’s a lot going on. And again, we appreciate your time with us and, you know, giving us a glimpse of daily life in archeology and intersection and all that sort of stuff. It was very, very interesting, it was great to have you.

Cynthia: Well, thanks for having me.