Richard Wehrle, a Master of Divinity student at Bethany Theological Seminary, presented his scholarly paper, “Social Death in the Gospel of Luke” during a recent online conference sponsored by American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. Wehrle was a part of a panel chaired by Dr. Mitzi Smith of Columbia Theological Seminary. Smith invited Wehrle to participate in the conference after teaching him an August Intensive course on African American Interpretation of Luke for students at Bethany and Columbia.
“I’m a pastor, so I am comfortable speaking to groups, but this was my first time presenting in an academic setting,” says Wehrle, noting that participants thanked him for the insights he shared. The 15-minute presentation was based on a longer paper he wrote for the Intensive course. He offered an interpretation of Luke 8: 26-39. (The passage focuses on a man ostracized from society who is possessed by demons and living among tombs. Jesus casts out the demons and tells the man to return home and tell others what God has done for him.)
For Wehrle, this story resonates with 21st century America, where many individuals are cut off from society due to homelessness, mental illness, addiction, or a history of incarceration. In his paper, he relates the concept of social death to slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Lives Matter Movement, mass incarceration, mental illness, and human trafficking. He believes the church has a strong role to play in helping marginalized people to reconnect with society.
“The church can certainly reach out to people who are not integrating into society, but we need to acknowledge that sometimes, the church has done more harm than good in its interactions with people who are outside the norm. We need to see people as people and find ways to help them reconnect with society.”
Academic Dean Steve Schweitzer notes, “We are very excited to see Richard’s paper, based on his Bethany coursework, featured at an academic conference. For the faculty, it is always gratifying to see our students sharing their good work with colleagues from other institutions and contributing to important scholarly conversations.”
Wehrle took an unconventional path to seminary. He did not attend college and did not begin attending church until he was in his mid-20’s. He took courses through the Christian Growth Institute (sponsored by the Brethren Academy for Ministerial Leadership), completing his studies in 2012. His Master of Divinity concentration is in Intercultural Ministry. As pastor of Midland Church of the Brethren in Midland, Va., his ministry includes work with marginalized individuals, including formerly incarcerated men.
He found the course on African American Interpretation of Luke enlightening, and he is glad to have had the opportunity to present his scholarship in an academic setting.
“The course opened a whole new world to me, and it introduced me to new ways of thinking about the Gospel. I am still struggling with some of concepts we discussed, but I am grateful to have many different lenses with which to view scripture. I appreciated the opportunity to exchange ideas with others during the conference.”