Five reasons why Paula Gooder is going to influence your theology

Alexander Baker

Paula Gooder's time has come. Already on the radar of Christians in the know, she's not quite a celebrity thinker like NT Wright just yet. But she's well on her way. A popular speaker and writer, but not quite in the hyper-popular league of lighter writers like Rob Bell, her star is definitely rising.

And while Dr Gooder would probably be the first to point out that popularity of this sort should not be important to Christians, many of us are terribly pleased that she is likely to influence more and more people over the coming years. She's about to become your friends' favourite theologian, so here are five reasons why.

1. She's scary smart

 Paula Gooder has been working hard for years as a scholar and writer. And what she has achieved is impressive.

She studied under Tom Wright, is theologian in residence at the Bible Society and is the author of works on (among many others): Heaven (the Times Literary Supplement called it "a fine example of careful biblical scholarship made accessible and exciting"), interpreting the New Testament ("deserves to be on the bibliography of every serious student of the Bible", according to one Edinburgh University scholar) and exploring New Testament Greek.

During our conversation in a tiny press tent at Greenbelt festival, I try to hide how hard it is to interview someone so clever without feeling like a doofus. She tries to explain to me how most of us read the Apostle Paul through a lens of Plato, through a lens of Descartes, when thinking about the dichotomy of soul and body. Of course we do.

As an intellectual in the Church, she recognises that some streams of Christianity still harbour deep suspicions of intellectualism. "To an extent I understand that suspicion," she says. "I grew up in that tradition. I was really anxious when I went to college that I would lose my faith because of academic theology."

But for Gooder, the era of the academic theology that had, according to her, "almost sucked the life out of theology by the 1960s" is over. She counts herself as part of a newer generation of theologians holding academic rigour and spiritual devotion together.

When people at events ask her whether she will be giving a devotional talk or an academic talk, Gooder says her answer is usually: "Yes."

"Proper academic study is the heart of devotion and vice versa," she says. "It's when you're using your brain that you can really encounter God."

In a world plagued by atheists painting all Christians as idiots (and Christians seeming to do all in their power to aid them in their mission), what is not to love about that view?

2. She's a bridge-builder

Holding together the intellectual and devotional sides of Christianity is just a starting point. The Venn diagram of people who speak at the more progressive Greenbelt, the evangelical Spring Harvest and a range of great cathedrals has a pretty tiny middle bit, and Paula Gooder is in it. She's in Reform magazine and Premier Christianity. She's a lay member of General Synod and features regularly in online videos explaining faith to ordinary people.

"I am an evangelical, but I do love worshiping in English cathedrals," she says, pausing to muse on the fact that she needs to express her next statement carefully. "I also have strands of liberalism which have hugely influenced me. Liberals are actually very much closer in some aspects to evangelicals than either group would like to think."

Gooder sets herself the discipline of intentionally accepting invitations to speak, several times a year, from groups she wouldn't usually engage with. "Of course you feel a bit uncomfortable, but actually you learn something really interesting," she says. "I'm passionate about having a wide reach. If I can be moving between different circles, then actually maybe the different circles could talk to each other."

Talking to each other is Gooder's recipe for moving beyond cartoonish misconceptions between different 'sides' within the Church – liberal and conservative, traditional and evangelical, intellectual and spiritual. "Each part of the Church has its own treasure. We need to learn more from the treasure that the 'other' has," she says, citing Evangelicals' passion for Scripture and a relationship with Jesus, Catholics' mystery and ritual. "Once you start that conversation, you can receive the gift that you hadn't realised they had to offer."

3. She's a woman

It shouldn't matter, but it does. Women are woefully underrepresented on our bookshelves (though, as Gooder recently pointed out on Twitter, there are very few women on her bookshelves, but that's because they are filled with books). And you don't have to believe that women are inherently nurturing or bring some kind of 'feminine perspective' to academia to know that this situation is odd and wrong. Women like Gooder, who don't limit themselves to writing about women or 'women's issues', will play a big part in changing that.

Part of the reason Gooder enjoys such a broad reach is, according to her, because she is a woman. "As a woman you can get away with things that men can't," she says. "When you're a man, it becomes really important where you're placed. But as a woman I'm half breaking the rules anyway, so I can get away with more."

If it has helped her break some rules, it may yet see her break some barriers to women getting involved in theology. She tells me the story of a young woman she had met the previous day at the festival who had been inspired by a talk Gooder had given several years ago and was now studying for a theology degree. Gooder feels that if her career ends after five years but she could have inspired 30 women to do theology in that way, she will have achieved a great deal.

"If one person has done that, that's my job well done," she says. "My great goal is not for me to be really important, but to have loads and loads of people, particularly women – because there's not enough women – catching the vision and going off and doing it."

She's also been a member of the CofE's Women in Episcopacy Steering Committee and is currently on the Women In Episcopacy Working Party. So, you know.

4. She's not impressed with her own celebrity

When I ask her how she feels about her growing fame in Christian circles, Gooder says she finds it terrifying. "I don't trust it. Because what goes up comes down. And also, you see some people who believe their own publicity. The cult of celebrity is, I think, really unhealthy in Christianity – because there is only one celebrity in Christianity, and that is Christ."

But beyond the fame that a relatively small scene like the one the British Christian world offers, there is also the possibility of influence. Writers and speakers like Gooder end up having an inordinately significant influence on the way we see the Bible and God, the way we pray, worship and live. If fame isn't to be trusted, how does she feel about that?

"It's a terrifying responsibility, but also an enormous privilege."

Even positive feedback is to be taken with a pinch of salt. "I try not to listen to people when they say really nice things about me, because I know that if I listen to them, I will also listen to the criticism," she says. "It's a little bit like a drug, people liking your stuff. I struggle with it on all sorts of levels. I grew up on a council estate in northern England, and I'm a woman. So, I am deeply underconfident in my abilities. And so I naturally listen to people who criticise me."

How she could lack confidence (or how she manages to hide that fact so well) is somewhat beyond me, but if the masses need to be influenced by someone, I'd prefer it to be by someone deeply uncomfortable with celebrity and aware of her responsibility than someone deeply in love with their own press shots.

5. She's a great communicator and she's passionate about the Bible

Paula Gooder writes beautifully. If you have not read Heaven, you really should. Everyday God, her contemplation of finding God in in the ordinary, has received rave reviews. And you don't get invited to do all these talks without being pretty good at them.

In talks, her style switches comfortably between the kind of scholasticism that has made Bible geeks love Tom Wright and the grounded, earthy expressions that non-academics can truly relate to. But it's her passion for the Bible, and her belief that we can all get something new and good out of its study, that is truly impressive. At a time when many popular and inspirational thinkers and speakers are relying more on anecdote, philosophy or frameworks of their own divising, Paula Gooder is firmly in the tradition that, even when it is referring to the everyday, keeps bringing us back to Scripture.

While discussing the divisions and tensions within the Church, her esteem for the power of Scripture extends to seeing the Bible itself as a potential solution, that could resolve many differences, "if all of the groups started reading Scripture and engaging with it in an excited way".

Often she breaks off during an answer to make sure I haven't misinterpreted or misconstrued her meaning. She tells me that her extroversion means that occasionally while she's preaching or speaking, things will come out that she never intended to say and she then has to clarify, retract or modify what she's said. "I pray a lot while I talk as well as before I talk, and pray that God is involved and the Holy Spirit is present, and therefore that responsibility is not all mine."

Over the course of one talk at Greenbelt, she manages to make a word that worship music has repeated so often it has become all but meaningless – "Glory" – resonate for the audience with bright, weighty meaning, by drawing them into her own translation. In another talk she manages to breathe new fire into that chestnuttiest of old Sunday School chestnuts, Moses and the burning bush – and make it seem fresh, relevant and personal.

Very few people can do that for an audience. Fewer still when the audience is drenched, bum-numbed and covered in mud.

If Paula Gooder is the future, bring it on.

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