Tat-siong Benny Liew, PSR’s new academic dean, on being a scholar and leader in challenging times

A slow-grinding economic recovery; an uncertain future for mainline Protestantism; enormous change in educational technology—it would take a brave soul to step into leadership at a theological institution in times like these. Tat-siong Benny Liew is nothing if not a brave soul; and he seems to relish a challenge, which is why he’s taken on the position of Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean at PSR. We had a chance to interview him before the whirlwind activity of his three-year term began in July.

Liew comes to the position with an impressive record of scholarship. As professor of New Testament he has continued PSR’s tradition of understanding social context as it applies to scripture—both the context of the reader and the context of the surrounding culture.
As this article was being written, signs of the end times were popping up around the country predicting Judgment Day on May 21, 2011. This was a convenient object lesson for Liew’s spring 2011 class, “Apocalyptic Then and Now,” examining the biblical basis for apocalyptic literature and the larger expressions of this worldview in society. His first book, published just prior to the turn of the millennium, was Politics of Parousia: Reading Mark Inter(con)textually, which focused on emphasis on the Parousia, or the triumphant return of Christ, in the first Gospel.

“Interpreters have read Mark as what they call an ‘apocalyptic drama,’” Liew said, “but the whole idea of apocalyptic in general is a cultural phenomenon, especially in the U.S. It’s not just limited to the Bible; I see it in a lot of places. In the class we talked about science fiction and even environmentalism. Like Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth—if you look at it carefully, you actually see a lot of apocalyptic undertones. Sometimes it’s not even implicit, it’s actually quite explicit, referring to the book of Revelation.”  

In exploring this relationship between a reader of scripture and the larger society, Liew has become one of the foremost biblical scholars developing an Asian American biblical hermeneutics applied to the New Testament. His 2008 book, What Is Asian American Biblical Hermeneutics?: Reading the New Testament is considered a pioneering book in its field, the first monograph by a major biblical scholar on the subject.

Liew explained the idea behind Asian American biblical hermeneutics (that is, the underlying principles or assumptions with which one approaches biblical study): “Basically it is to take seriously the idea that the social location of the reader of the Bible makes a difference in his or her interpretation of the text. Part of one’s social location is one’s race and ethnicity. So Asian American biblical hermeneutics says if that thought is true, how might somebody who has been racialized as an Asian American read the Bible differently than someone who is white, or African American, or Latino/Latina?”

Liew cited PSR’s professor of New Testament Mary Ann Tolbert (from whom he takes over the position as Dean) for playing a pioneering role in developing and emphasizing social location in one’s reading of the Bible. 

He stressed that racial or ethnic experience is only one part of the complex matrix of social location that might affect one’s biblical interpretation. “Asian American hermeneutics frontloads race and ethnicity. It certainly does not mean that it is done in an exclusive way that neglects other factors like gender or sexuality or class, but it does feature race and ethnicity as an influential factor in how one might read the Bible.” Describing it as a cross-discipline with Asian American studies and other literary, social, and historical theories of interpretation, Liew said, “It is a lens that you use to read the Bible, but a lens that is formed by your own experience as well as the whole discipline of Asian American studies.”

Speaking of the challenges of being Dean, Liew mentioned the need to rebuild the PSR faculty, which is at its smallest point in several years after retirements, deaths, and departures. “We have to look at how we can develop a strong faculty that would cover the bases of the curriculum and do well,” Liew said, “and we also have to address the workload factor for the faculty.”

He also spoke about the continuing evolution of the school’s curriculum: “I think that’s one of the things we have to revisit again, as any theological school should do. After several years you always revise and see what you can do better and improve on.”
PSR’s administration has prioritized the development of online courses, distance learning, and other flexible learning environments to make PSR’s educational offerings more accessible. In this technological environment, however, where students may spend a portion of their time working on a degree from other locations besides PSR’s campus, student formation will be more of a challenge.

“We have to continue to look at the formation of students, and I don’t mean a ‘cookie-cutter’ formation.  We’re all about students being who they are as individuals, and honoring that as a vital element of their ministry.” Liew said, “I’m talking about providing them with an environment, a community, where we can help them to develop the most effective ethos and habits to aid them both in their studies at PSR, and in their future as religious leaders.  Again, I would expect these to vary somewhat with individuals.”
Faced with the difficulties of doing higher education in a struggling economy, the buzzword of the era is “consolidation,” as PSR continues to combine large portions of its administration with other seminaries and the GTU. “Our President is leading the charge on that front,” Liew said, “and I think it is important to explore. But we need to be careful to think it through so we do not dilute the identity of PSR. We have to always think of how PSR sustains its future for the long haul and do so in ways that do not foreclose possibilities.”

The greatest personal challenge for any professor moving into the ranks of administration is balancing their academic interests with the demands of the job. “That’s a hard one,” Liew said, asked about the personal juggling act he will have to manage over the next few years. “I think most people who know me know that I have always seen myself as a teacher and a scholar,” Liew said. “When I agreed to take on this position I made it clear to the President that I intend to teach one class each semester—two classes per year. I know from the experience of previous Deans, Mary Donovan Turner and Mary Tolbert, that it is a very demanding office. There are a lot of things that come your way. This is a position that requires the help of many people on different levels.”

Liew was emphatic, however, in stating his desire to continue his scholarship. “At the end of the day, teaching and learning is our mandate, our strength, and our reason for existing as an institution.  Ensuring the quality of that educational experience is my primary concern both in the classroom and in the Dean’s office at PSR.”