Interview with Goodwin Prize Winner Nadia Marais

The $1,000 prize has been award to Nadia Marais of the Stellenbosch University for her essay, "Lovelyn, Belhar, and Mary: Exploring the rhetoric of confession as resistance to injustice."

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

Well, to be honest, I did not want to study theology initially.

When I finally did switch courses - from commerce to theology - and as I progressed through my studies, I found various theological disciplines inspiring and thought-provoking, especially as these related to church and society in South Africa. The church that I grew up in, the Dutch Reformed Church, played an important role in my eventual decision - at first to study theology at all, and later to pursue advanced studies in theology.  For ordination in the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa we had very specific subjects and degrees to complete, so myself and my classmates followed the church-specific requirements before considering advanced studies in theology. 

  1. Moreover, I have great respect for the theologians who taught me, some of whom are now my colleagues at the Faculty of Theology. Because of them the real difficulty was not whether or not I should pursue advanced studies, but rather the eventual decision on a focus and a discipline for further study! I am, after a practical year (a kind of church apprenticeship) in the Karoo, very positive about ministry - and yet in equal part passionate about a career in academia. I had hoped that my advanced studies would eventually enable me to do both. I am very grateful to be in a position now where I can indeed do both - as a recently appointed fulltime lecturer in Systematic Theology as well as a recently ordained minister in a local congregation, Stellenbosch-Welgelegen. I enjoy both worlds, and my colleagues in both the faculty and in the congregation give me energy in the pursuit of and being in service of that which I am passionate about - namely, theology and church.
  2. Where do you see connections between your personal faith, your intellectual work and the other aspects of your life? 
  3. It is difficult to speak of my personal faith apart from my community of faith. I have mentioned that the Dutch Reformed Church is the church wherein I was raised, and wherein I am an ordained minister. She is my mother, but she also troubles me deeply. Not only her past - as the church who provided theological justification for apartheid in South Africa; she was in that time called the National Party at prayer! - but also her future. At the moment we have huge debates on same sex relationships, church reunification within the Dutch Reformed family of churches (seeing as churches within this family were separated based on race), and the Belhar Confession. Last year our general synod finally, after 30 years of deliberation and discussion, decided to recognize same sex relationships. The decision was, however, not implemented - and to this day remains unimplemented by church leadership. We also cannot seem to come to a point where we are able to seriously consider and accept the Belhar Confession as a theological confession. This saddens many of us younger ministers; as those who studied with students from URCSA (our sister church wherein Belhar originated), as those who were legitimised in a joint ceremony with our colleagues in URCSA, and as those who decided to sign the Belhar Confession (in addition to the ecumenical confessions and three articles of unity) at this ceremony. Much of my thinking behind the research and intellectual work I do, including the essay that won a Goodwin Prize, is shaped by these debates and concerns. I wonder, and struggle, and try to imagine alternatives to these difficult issues. 

However, fortunately herein too there are many people - not just myself!- within this community of faith that want to and try to work toward greater justice and flourishing for all. And really, we have had wonderful theologians who were always deeply committed to the church but who also did not shy away from direct confrontation with the church when she did wrong - they who, exactly from their deep love for this church, were willing to offer courageous critique at critical moments of our history. I am reminded of remarkable theologians like Beyers Naudé and Willie Jonker, who shaped this church in innumerable ways. It is a great comfort to be reminded that they too form part of this community of faith, and herein remind us that the Dutch Reformed Church always also included those who resisted injustice and promoted human flourishing. 

Moreover, it is significant that both at the Faculty of Theology - who, as part of a broader strategic initiative called The Hope Project (launched in 2010), decided to focus on the MDG of promoting human dignity - and in the Dutch Reformed Church - who entered into what is called The Season of Human Dignity (in 2013), which is characterized by the values of respect, listening, love, and embrace - the focus on human dignity is prominent. Herein I find a very important connection or convergence between these two worlds in which I live and work. As such, an important impetus behind my interest in the kind of issues reflected in the Goodwin essay - such as student protests in South Africa, Mary's song as a song of protest, and the role and rhetoric of confession(s) - is my academic work on ecological and human flourishing. My PhD dissertation entailed a systematic theological exploration of contemporary discourses on salvation, and included analyses of the soteriologies of theologians for whom I have the greatest respect - Mercy Oduyoye, Serene Jones, Ellen Charry, Denise Ackermann, and David Kelsey, among others.

So, in short: at this point in my life I find the most interesting and important connections between faith, theology, and church in reflecting on the claim that all human beings have dignity and in (the collective) imagining of what it means for human beings and the ecology to flourish.

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

I am very interested in rhetoric. I think that the kind of language used, whether in church or in society, shapes our worlds in crucial ways - a good example is probably the political rhetoric evident in the lead up to South African elections earlier this year and the American elections later this year. The way in which we speak about our world and one another - the neighbour, the stranger, the refugee, the opponent - cannot be ignored. It has the power to heal and bless, to hurt and curse. In short, the ways in which language performs are important. This is the first point that the paper wants to make.

However, not just any kind of language - but the specific language used within particular contexts (in church, and in faith, and by theology) is important. The rhetoric specific to that which we do and say in faith communities, such as confession, has some role to play exactly because language performs, shapes, empowers, disempowers, distorts, heals, curses in concretely particular, specific ways. Stated somewhat differently, there is something particular or specific to the rhetoric of confession that is different from other kinds of language. Here the affirmation that confession is the grammar of faith is helpful. This means that confession provides us with language to express our faith in the Triune God. This is the second point that the paper wants to make.

These two prior points provide the basis upon which the paper's third point, and core argument, rests. 

The third point that the paper explores is what kind of power the particular language of confession wields. The rhetoric of confession may do more than only admit guilt in a confessional booth ("bless me Father, for I have sinned") or own up to a crime in a court of law (“I admit that I killed Reeva, My Lady”). In this paper I argue that embedded in the confession as the grammar of faith are ground patterns or a core logic, which entails a double movement of affirmation and resistance, of saying yes and saying no. The classic dictum is that of God's yes and God's no that both come to expression in our confessions. Of course we affirm and embrace certain belief claims when we confess, which is the 'yes' of confession. What we say yes to is important and, I think, complex. The 'no', I argue, is in itself also important and complex - for this no can entail a myriad of no's, such as a no to heresy, a no to a theological or political opponent, a no to injustice. Two examples that I use in the paper of the no to injustice in confessions is that of Mary's Song, the Magnificat (in Luke 1:40 - 55), and the Belhar Confession that was adopted in 1986. A third example, I argue, is that of the speeches of a young woman in South Africa, Lovelyn Nwadeyi, whose speeches portray traces of such a rhetoric of confession as explained, very shortly, above. Together these examples all served to illustrate that confession may possibly become one way of resisting injustice - of course not as the only way, or even the best way, but merely one classic way to protest or resist injustice - by saying 'no'.

So, in summary: this paper, exploring the rhetoric of Mary’s Song and the Belhar Confession in the light of the challenges raised by young female voices of protest, and in particular that of Lovelyn Nwadeyi, highlights confession as a classic theological way of resisting injustice and promoting human flourishing. Herein the double movement of affirmation and rejection, of naming theological heresy as well as the truths of the gospel, of resistance and insistence, provide the grammar and patterns for our language of faith. Lovelyn’s resistance of exclusion based on race, gender, and class is accompanied by her insistence on the reclaiming of a ‘collective humanity’; Belhar’s resistance of division, irreconcilability and injustice is accompanied by insistence on unity, reconciliation, and justice; and Mary’s resistance of the oppression by the powerful is accompanied by her insistence on the flourishing of the vulnerable. Confession becomes a strategy for addressing oppression and violation, exactly insofar as it insists on the flourishing of human beings – and therein may provide one alternative, amidst many alternatives, to publicly and actively resist injustice.

How might this award make a difference in your life? 

I am thankful for the reward, primarily because I regard the prize as a recognition of the high quality theological education provided by Stellenbosch University. I was, while a student at the Faculty of Theology, fascinated by the variety of research foci of theologians at Stellenbosch; and now that I myself teach at the faculty, I continue to be inspired by the wonderful work that my colleagues are engaged in. The one person that I am particularly thankful to is my supervisor and mentor over many years, Prof Dirkie Smit. He brought the Goodwin Prize under my attention and encouraged me to apply, but long before this he has played and continues to play an essential role in my formation as a young theologian. 

I must also say a word about the wonderful students in our faculty, who continue to be always greatly involved on campus - in leadership structures, in public debates and discussions, in student protests - and who enrich and challenge the faculty and their various churches in important ways. When I look to them I am hopeful for the future of South Africa, and I look forward to see how they will live out their respective callings in church and society. 

When I think of students, young ministers, young theologians, the future - I cannot help but remember the important role that one specific theologian played in both the Dutch Reformed family of churches and Stellenbosch University. Prof Russel Botman, who was not only a renowned South African public theologian but also the rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University until his death in 2014, played a pivotal role in placing the university on a trajectory of transformation. The Hope Project was his gift to Stellenbosch University and South Africa, with its focus on positioning the university in service of communities in South Africa and Africa, and the promotion of human dignity was an important concern in all of the many roles that he played. I included him in my PhD study, but I think that in a way the Goodwin Prize reflects much of what he stood for and felt strongly about. I cannot help but think of him and his legacy when asked how this award might make a difference in my life. My hope is that, through the kind of work that the Goodwin Prize recognizes, his dream for a better world may come to be.

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

I love horseriding and drinking wine. We have really good wine in Stellenbosch, so for someone that did not grow up in the winelands I have a lot of appreciation for Stellenbosch's wine! I don't get much time for horses, unfortunately, but I try to jog regularly, and swim, and read. I also try to have regular conversations and spend time with friends and colleagues; those who consistently challenge me on my own thoughts and questions, who accompany me in much that I do - including in the faculty and in the church. And I am blessed by a supportive family - we always have very interesting discussions and debates.


Through the three annual Goodwin Prizes we recognize and reward the most promising graduate theology students in the world. The Louise and Richard Goodwin Writing Prizes for Excellence in Theological Writing are given to graduate students in recognition of essays that demonstrate: creative theological thinking, excellence in scholarship, faithful witness to the Christian tradition, and engagement with the community of faith.

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