Alumna Brigidda Bell on her U of T experience and why the humanities are here to stay

September 11, 2023 by Sonja Johnston (Jackman Humanities Institute)

Brigidda Bell holds a PhD in Religion from the University of Toronto. She's currently Assistant Professor of New Testament at the Moravian Theological Seminary of Moravian University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Brigidda was a Graduate Fellow during the Jackman Humanities Institute's 2018-19 theme Reading Faces, Reading Minds.

What have you been doing since your JHI fellowship ended?

After my JHI fellowship, I took up a Visiting Graduate Fellowship at the University of Calgary's Department of Classics and Religion, where I benefited from invited lecture series and special events, as well as the impressive collections of the Nickle Galleries. The pandemic hit that Spring, which certainly changed the rhythm of my work, and it pushed me into the pedagogy of online teaching (while I watched my eldest child navigate their own newly online curriculum!). I had the opportunity to develop and teach remote classes at the University of Calgary and at the University of Alberta's St. Stephen's College and, in August of 2021, I joined Moravian Theological Seminary and Moravian University as Assistant Professor of New Testament in Bethlehem, PA. After all of that, I defended my dissertation in August of 2022.

Since I've been at Moravian I have finished up a few smaller writing projects, including an article that thinks along affective lines about the way knowledge is valorized (and potentially weaponized) through language in 1 Corinthians. Expertise was a key topic in my dissertation, and what I've learned about labour specialization in antiquity has kept me busy with a few works in progress related to the patronage of ritual experts, especially by Roman women. In the midst of those projects, I am also reshaping my dissertation on prophetic credibility into a monograph.

Can you summarize the project you worked on while at the JHI?

My dissertation considered the category of credibility—a compound of trust and expertise—as a framework for understanding how early Christians assessed those who claimed to act through the Holy Spirit. Most ancient authors tell us that they judge Christian prophets on their theology, but humans are terrible at self-reflection: we assume ourselves to be much more "rational" than we truly are. Using biological signalling theory, I argued that prophets were judged less on their theological convictions and more on subtle behavioural cues such as the way they moved, their perceived altruism, and how exotic they appeared. While at the JHI, I especially focused on theory and the body language of the successful prophet: what does the prophetic body possessed by a god look like to the ancient observer? Early Christians were reading faces and assuming minds possessed, rendering a credible prophet. Stemming from my chapter on altruism, at this time I also wrote "The Cost of Baptism? The Case for Paul's Ritual Compensation" which came out in the Spring of 2020.

What was your JHI experience like?

Before my fellowship, I had never had a year where I was not in the classroom, whether learning or teaching, so to have this time to focus solely on research—and to be given the space and resources to do so—felt surreal and deeply validating. The various events, including the weekly Fellows' Lunch, gave my week rhythm and gave me energy for my research. To be in the midst of such an intellectually stimulating environment changed how I worked, what I read and, ultimately, how I thought about the research problems with which I had arrived. Interdisciplinary work can sometimes feel isolating, as if none of the fields that you draw on understand why you are linking certain ideas or data together, but not so at JHI. Early in the year, we hosted Philippe Schlenker as Distinguished Visiting Fellow, and in his work I was able to see my same questions about communication and bodies posed in a disciplinary language different from my own. His excitement, and that of all the fellows, at the ways we can talk across disciplinary silos, and learn from and with each other, was characteristic of my experience as a JHI Fellow.

Did participating in the Fellows' Lunch or general interaction with other Fellows spark or inform your research once you left and if so, how?

The Fellows' lunches really prompted me to think about how we communicate across disciplinary divides and to an educated, generalist audience. I have always gawked at academese (perhaps due to my struggles reading academic English when I first started postsecondary!) and worked to find a friendlier writing voice (even though I lapse constantly—see my description of research above). During my fellowship year, Postdoc Fellow Danielle Taschereau-Mamers started a writing group, re-established online during the pandemic, where more of the groundwork for cultivating a writing voice took place for me. Since then, I've also benefitted greatly from the JHI Public Writing Group, of which I am still a[n irregular] part.

So many of the Fellows left me with things to work through in my own research, from conversations with Jennifer Nagel and Mason Westfall about cognition, Brad Hald's thoughtfulness about affect, Nisarg Patel’s perceptive curiosity about theory, and Maria Subtelny's probing questions about ancient astrology. I certainly owe the largest debt of gratitude to my JHI officemate, Deanna Del Vecchio, whose inspiring work on the US/Mexico border gave me lots to think about as I was, at the time, thinking about mobility while working on a chapter on ethnicity and (ritual) labour specialization in antiquity. This past year I taught a class on migration and the New Testament, the seeds of which were certainly planted while I was at the JHI!

Why do you think the humanities are important?

I am a specialist in New Testament, but I was brought up to read broadly and be intellectually curious about the world in general. As a former high school literature teacher, my mother had a well-stocked library, and as a child I would pluck books at random from the shelves: from Greek and Roman mythology, to Umberto Eco and Isabel Allende. Being encouraged to read for the joy of learning and to see life through the eyes of others, allowed me to explore worlds different from my own, all from my backyard in the valleys of Quito, Ecuador. The humanities foster our imagination of possibility; they give us space to inhabit thought worlds that stretch us intellectually and emotionally. This applies across the spectrum of humanistic disciplines, from reading social histories of the lives of enslaved women prophets in first century Asia Minor (something I am currently writing on), to fantasy novels set in 1800s England (something I just finished reading), to contemporary philosophy (something on my nightstand). There will always be conversations about the "death of the humanities," and while the shape and texture of the humanities will change with time, place, and people, I believe that the human search for connection and meaning (through art, through literature, through others) will never dwindle, and that human creativity cannot and will not be replaced.