Teaching students to read Scripture carefully so they can lead congregations faithfully
His ministry at Candler School of Theology helps ministers-in-training understand the Church’s foundational text in our modern context.
Joel LeMon is a United Methodist Elder and an assistant professor of Old Testament at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His work combines his expertise in Old Testament interpretation and ancient Near Eastern History with his passion for music and a deep concern for the life of the local church.
In an environment where some scholars have found a gap between their discipline and the church, LeMon sees his scholarship as a means of helping future pastors to bring Scripture to life within their congregations.
At age 12, LeMon felt the call to ordained ministry. With seminary in his sights, but not yet envisioning a career as a biblical scholar, LeMon decided to devote his college years to studying trumpet at Shenandoah Conservatory.
Musical study, he says, was not a detour on his road to ministry, but a crucial part of his training as a biblical interpreter. At conservatory, in addition to learning how to play music, he learned how to listen — for repeated motifs, for the development of themes and the structures by which music makes meaning for its hearers.
He also began to understand how the great composers have listened carefully to the biblical texts and, through their musical settings, have offered new and compelling ways of attending to Scripture. Music remains an important resource for LeMon’s engagement with Scripture, and he freely brings composers’ “commentaries” into conversation with historical-critical interpreters.
While completing his Master of Divinity degree, LeMon felt a growing love for the labor of biblical exegesis, but struggled to reconcile his newfound passion with his calling to ministry. He eventually came to see that serving the church might mean teaching at a seminary, ministering to future ministers by helping them learn to read Scripture carefully and faithfully.
He is ordained in the Virginia Annual Conference and understands his work at Candler to accord with the fourfold nature of ministry in word, sacrament, service and order. In practice, LeMon trains seminarians to use rigorous historical scholarship as a tool for sensitive theological appropriation of Scripture.
LeMon helps his students think about ways of bridging the cultural divide that separates modern readers from Scripture’s earliest hearers. He argues that same Spirit that worked through the authors, editors and compilers of Scripture so long ago now enlivens our interpretive work. Thus he recognizes that our historical distance from the text actually provides a powerful witness to the activity of the Holy Spirit across history and in our midst.
LeMon’s ministerial calling includes providing written resources for interpreting the Old Testament. His writing on the Psalms explores the role that these texts played in the worship of Yahweh in ancient Israel and how they can still inform contemporary Christian preaching and liturgy.
LeMon says his receipt of the John Wesley Fellowship has been a key source of support. The fellowship, he said, provided him with a much-needed community of scholars who embraced their confessional identity as committed men and women of the church.
It is a wonderful “mixture of conviviality and sharp academic exchange,” LeMon said, that makes the John Wesley Fellows such a fruitful and winsome community of study and such a promising resource for the renewed vitality of United Methodism’s spiritual and intellectual life.