Rev. Nancy Benson-Nicol is a familiar sight here at U of O, with a smile for everyone and uplifting chapel sermons. But there is another side to Rev. Nancy. She has spent the past three years authoring a detailed study guide for the General Epistles of the New Testament and is about to go on a series of trips through the summer and into the fall to promote and workshop the guide.
The Rev. Nancy Benson-Nicol has authored a detailed study guide for the General Epistles of the New Testament and hold a series of workshops over the guide during the summer.
"Dispatches to God’s Household: The General Epistles" will be published through Horizons magazine, a magazine of Presbyterian Women, which is an independent organization within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with more than 300,000 members. The magazine is published bi-monthly with, as Rev. Nancy put it, "a focus on various mission partnerships and theological musings of Presbyterian women throughout the country and the world." Once a year, Horizons also publishes a Bible study, nine lessons covering a different book of the Bible or a specific theme each year.
"’Dispatches to God’s Household: The General Epistles’ covers portions of scriptures from 1st and 2nd Peter, 1st through 3rd John, and Jude," she explained. "In it I used the overarching idea of ‘family’ as the lens through which to look at the nature of community as it’s addressed in those letters. That was the charge I was given by the Bible studies selection committee three years ago."
Rev. Nancy says she was encouraged to apply to author this latest study because of her prior publication credits. "I’d written other pieces," she said, "a few short articles for a couple of publications, also a national liturgy published through Presbyterian Women for ‘Celebrate the Gifts of Women Sunday,’ which is celebrated on a Sunday in March and commended to the denominations for their follow up and participation."
She said typically the scriptures chosen for study guides are ones that lend themselves to telling stories. "It gives you a way to frame your analysis and build on the themes," she said. "However, in this case they gave me the minor epistles, which are letters, rather than stories, so my challenge was to figure out how to talk about these letters in terms of community without a ‘plot,’ so to speak."
Rev. Nancy took a multi-disciplinary approach to her project. "So by necessity part of the work was trying to learn more about the communities that would’ve received these letters, as best we can tell from the historical record, along with some of the issues they faced, and how they themselves would’ve heard the messages. Understanding what might have compelled the authors to lift up certain themes requires looking at some of the social situations of those receiving the letters, the historical context, and probable authorship."
She said the epistles amounted to help offered by their authors "on really holding together the early church as a family of faith, a way to forge their sense of identify and community in the midst of hostile cultures and worlds. The letters would have gone out to all provinces throughout the Roman Empire."
"These letters were written at a time of transition when you had this early group of Jesus followers transitioning to being what we think of as Christians per se," she said. "They were beginning to try to spell out doctrine in the face of false teachers who were going out preaching what these groups consider false gospels. Ideas like the Gnostic notion about the impossibility of God being able to be manifested in physical form in a material world. But these letters are saying, ‘No, Jesus was God, and is the Savior.’ There were real implications for how they were to understand who Jesus was, not the least of which would’ve been that their material outreach to brothers and sisters of Christ in need, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, would have been rendered pretty much obsolete and pointless if there was no point in the physical world, as some people were teaching."
Rev. Nancy’s 16 trips begin now and will continue through September, with a few here and there afterward. "In my visits I will acquaint the participants with the study, walk them through the lessons, and as much as I can offer insights, helpful hints, for them as they engage their circle with the Bible study. I’m really excited to meet the different groups that are willing to study, to hear their insights and gauge their responses, their personal beliefs and religious beliefs that are embedded in that concept of ‘family.’"
She said one of the major difficulties in writing something like this guide that she hadn’t appreciated until she began its composition was a consideration of the wide range of people in the audience demographic. "While they are all women who engage these studies, some have multiple degrees, retired Ph.D.’s, stay at home moms, professional women, all educational ranges," she said. "In terms of the reading and writing level of the study guide, that was a huge challenge of the field test of the first draft. It has gone through a lot of editing since then."
Those interested in the study guide may go to http://horizons.pcusa.org/bible.htm for further information.