The Fragment's Place in Christian Ethics | An Interview with Goodwin Prize Winner Bryan Ellrod

The $1,000 prize has been awarded to Bryan Ellrod (Emory University) for the essay, “The New Romantics: Authority, Authorship, and the Fragment’s Place in Christian Ethics”.

What inspired you to pursue an advanced degree in theology?  

I grew up in a home where some theological debate or another was the standard topic of dinner conversation.  However gregarious, the Ellrod family has never had any talent for proper small talk.  This upbringing inspired a deep love for theological questions.  For better or worse, they provide the frame within which I approach the world and connect with other people.  Pursuing an advanced degree in theology gave me the chance to be part of a community of inquiry where these questions are shared, reformulated, and refined.    

What do you hope to do with your degree? 

God willing, I hope to teach in a school of theology or undergraduate religion department.  I was very lucky to attend both a college and a seminary that saw rigorous intellectual training as part and parcel to formation for life and ministry.  I wouldn’t say that these settings gave me the answers to all my questions, but I was challenged to explore them more deeply and to ask new ones.  I would love to be able to serve in such a capacity as to be able to help my own students in the same way.  I am yet optimistic (naïve?) enough to believe that the sort of attention we cultivate in our studies and seminars also develops the caring and inquisitive attention we owe to our neighbors.

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

I have always felt a little caught in the tension between Acts 1’s call to witness, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Ecclesiastes 5’s admonition that it is God who is in heaven and we who walk upon the earth.  We are tasked to bear witness, in word and deed, to a reality that eye has not seen and ear has not heard.  I don’t think there’s anything particularly unique about being dumbfounded by this task.  I’m just incredibly lucky.  For now at least, I get to build my entire occupation around puzzling over the tension. It’s as if I am being paid to attend my own therapy.  As I understand it, my intellectual work on transcendence and immanence or authorship and authority all springs from personal questions about what it means to be this particularly guy from central Florida being called to bear witness to divine love in this particular moment.   

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

How are we to bear witness to a God, who shapes our lives yet outstrips our understanding?  How are we to communicate divine love in contingent acts and sentences? Our initial response might be to tell a story about this God, her creation, and the task she sets before it. But telling such a narrative requires a particular kind of narrator, one who is able to step above the helter-skelter of history and get a clearer picture.  For those of us still living in the midst of history, achieving this vantage point is insurmountably difficult.  We live in the middle of the story and not at its end.  So, if we can’t get a clear picture, then we must learn to communicate based on the piece-meal glimpses we achieve in the midst of our day to day lives.  Taking our contingency seriously means getting comfortable with fragments.  That is, recognizing and being clear that our works are always incomplete.  They are the echoes of a Word that has gone before them and the first whispers of its return.     

How might this award make a difference in your life?

When I wrote my paper, I attempted to be playful in my use of genre; allowing the ideas in the paper to permeate the form.  I love reading Søren Kierkegaard, I think he is a master in this respect.  I’m a novice at best, but I take this award as encouragement to continue in the experiment. To my mind, taking divine revelation seriously should bear not only on the claims of, say, epistemology or ethics, but should also encourage us to question howwe ought to go about uttering and writing them in the contingent sentences of a particular historical moment.  Homileticians have long been concerned with the theological significance of rhetorical and literary device, I take this award to be added confirmation that theological ethicists have good reason to be as well.      

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

When I am not studying, I am an amateur ice hockey player and zealous supporter of the Tampa Bay Lightning.  I also play guitar and write music – not terribly good music.  When we can get out of the city, my wife is teaching me to enjoy hiking and camping.  When we cannot, we are teaching each other how to cook. 

Any other comments? 

I just want to thank Theological Horizons for the opportunity to play with some of these ideas!  The essay was a pleasure to write, I didn’t really expect anything to come of it, so this has all been a lot of fun. 

For more information on the Goodwin Prize, click here.