Interview with Goodwin Prize Winner Brad East

Brad East (doctoral candidate, Yale University, concentrating in Theology)

Title: Patiently Awaiting the Death and Resurrection of the Universe: Eschatological Memory and Ecological Ethics in 2 Peter 3:1-13

What inspired you to pursue an advanced degree in theology? What do you hope to do with your degree?

In my middle and high school years, a youth minister noticed the precocious interest I showed in theological issues and put some formative authors in my hands: Lewis, Chesterton, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard. When I sat down with my parents to decide where to apply for college, and what to study there, they suggested one option I hadn’t even realized existed: teaching and writing as a professor of theology. That sounded too good to be true, as if I’d been made to do it. Ever since then, for the past 12 years, I’ve been pursuing the fulfillment of that goal, which is to say, of that calling.

My hope, therefore, most broadly, is to be a theologian: to love and serve the church and the world through loving God with all of my mind, seeking to understand and articulate as best I can who God is and what that means for human life. Concretely that means a lifetime of reading, writing, and teaching in the academy, preferably (though not exclusively) in the training of the church’s leaders. On the one hand, then, I hope to make some small contribution to the extraordinary body of knowledge that is the church’s ongoing theological tradition; and, on the other hand, to help Christians, whether ordained or not, to understand and embody better the difference the gospel makes in their lives.

Where do you see connections between your personal faith, your intellectual work and the other aspects of your life?

I’ve always found this question, which is one I’ve heard asked a lot, a bit odd—as if the three are separate and demand a kind of laborious effort to tie them together. Perhaps that’s some people’s experience, or the impression from the outside, but it’s never been that way for me. Christian theology, at least according to one venerable definition, is faith seeking understanding. So if one’s faith ought to fill, animate, and undergird the whole of one’s life, all the more should it do so in the work of theology, which nourishes and is nourished by the life of faith, its convictions and practices. One such practice, necessary in my view, is prayer. If all that Christians do is to the glory of God, then theologians’ work, however academic or intellectual or seemingly removed from ordinary believers’ lives, should similarly have as its ultimate end the adoration and praise of God. To remind myself of that crucial fact, and to orient my work toward it, I begin each day’s work—mundane as it is: reading for a couple hours, writing a few pages of a dissertation chapter, grading a student’s paper—with prayer and, usually, a Psalm. Ideally such habits affect my work in small but meaningful ways, and keep me from floating away into the ether, as academics, even (perhaps especially) theologians, are wont to do.

How would you summarize your paper for someone without a theological background? 

The paper engages a biblical passage from 2 Peter that speaks of the dissolution of the heavens and the earth by fire. I wanted to approach it with ecological questions in mind: Does such a passage commit Christians to either quiescence or active participation in the ongoing human denigration and abuse of the environment? Does it encourage passivity with respect to ecological crises, since ‘the earth will be destroyed anyway’—since ‘our hope is in heaven,’ not ‘in this world’? I wanted to see if the passage would admit a theological interpretation, in view of the whole canon and traditional Christian commitments, that answered these questions in the negative. And I was surprised by how straightforwardly the text could be read against the grain of its common reception, without qualifying radical eschatological vision or mitigating the awesome judgment the text announces for a world subject to sin, death, and decay. In that respect the text becomes a text of hope, both for the church and for a world suffering from the weight of sin—sin, note, that now takes the social, institutionalized form of devaluing God’s good creation.

How might this award make a difference in your life?

Every dollar makes a difference in a graduate student’s life! I am married with two small children, so receiving this prize, and its monetary gift, was a small but very real blessing in our attempt to make a life in this odd interim stage before—what is it called?—gainful employment. Moreover, it is a sign, again small but not inconsiderable, to colleagues and leaders in the field, not to mention employers, that I might have something to offer. Academia too often engenders practices of self-promotion, so to receive some measure of external recognition, even at this stage in my career, is an honor and an encouragement.

What would you say to prospective donors might fund the Goodwin Writing Prize?

What I said above, plus: that supporting the church’s future scholars is a worthwhile investment; that they (we) need the support; that it is one lovely and generous way to fund (literally and metaphorically) theological education, which is just a technical name for the church’s corporate obedience to one-fourth of the first and greatest commandment. Those of us in this business are not in it for the money. Receiving support from those in the church who are blessed with the means to do so is one way to ensure that we are able to continue our work, which, in its best moments, is a service to God, church, and world alike.

How do you spend your time when you are not studying?

When not studying I am most likely with my wife and two sons (3 and 1 ½ years old, respectively), probably outside, unless we are in the heart of a New England winter, in which case you’ll find us native Texans bundled up indoors. I’m a voracious reader and particularly love essays, historical nonfiction, novels, and poetry. I try to be self-educating outside of theology, especially in personal ‘blind spots’; this year, for example, I read Hamlet and Dante’s Commedia for the first time. (I know . . .) I’m also an avid lover of film and television; if I weren’t a theologian, I’d be a starving artist trying to direct a movie, and failing at that, I’d be a critic. In that vein, I can neither confirm nor deny that I maintain personal lists ranking the best films and shows for each year.

Any other comments?

I’m deeply grateful and honored to have received this award. My thanks to those involved in making the decision and to those who support the Prize financially.