Conversations with Camille Frank Olsen and Brent L. Top

Brent R. Nordgren and Brent L. Top

Women in the Scriptures: A Conversation with Camille Fronk Olson

Interview by Bethany Malouf

Camille Fronk Olson (camille_fronk@byu.edu) is associate chair of the Department of Ancient Scripture.

Bethany Malouf (beth5501@yahoo.com) is a research assistant at the Religious StudiesCenter.

Q: What are some goals of the Department of Ancient Scripture?

A: Because three of the four required religion courses are in the Ancient Scripture Department—both Book of Mormon classes and one New Testament class—one of our goals is to provide strong instruction for those classes in particular. Our faculty have backgrounds in a variety of fields relating to ancient scripture, be it history, languages, archaeology, geography, and so forth. No one person has expertise in every field, but collectively we want to be able to answer questions and remain current in our research to help students at BYU, members of the Church, and even the general Christian body.

Q:Your latest book, Women of the Old Testament, focuses on women in what kinds of ways?

A: Considering the scriptural context, I wanted to explore every angle about women’s lives in Old Testament times that I could imagine. Because their customs were different from ours, it is easy to discount these women or fail to see their relevance in the modern world. I selected a variety of women who lived in different eras of ancient history, came from a variety of cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, and are discussed in the Bible at different periods of their lives. Each chapter includes an historical background, the applicable geography, and verse by verse analysis of the language and customs. I utilized ancient texts including law codes of neighboring societies of the era, Jewish midrashim, Josephus’ history, and the Septuagint. One of my former BYU students, Elspeth Young, contributed beautiful paintings for the volume and her brother, Ashton, provided sketches for each chapter.

Q: How has researching and studying women in scripture influenced your perspective on women?

A: I recognize that God is aware of his daughters as he is his sons. Women’s contributions were vital to the Bible’s message, although typically not as obvious. Much like today, Old Testament women’s voices were not heard as much as men’s voices, and women’s contributions were more often reported because of their actions rather than their words. It is hopeful, motivating, and thrilling to see the strong faith and testimony of women in ancient times that had such a profound influence on others. For example, through their voice and actions, five unmarried girls inspired a change in Israel’s law code that allowed women to inherit (see Numbers 27 and 36), a legal precedent that still echoes today. The faith, wisdom, and courage of those five daughters of Zelophehad are rarely recognized.

Q: How can women today better relate to those women of ancient times?

A: First, we need to better understand their world and avoid extrapolating our mores to their customs and law codes. Once we recognize that they lived in a world that would be foreign to us, we can begin to appreciate their challenges and choices. This understanding will finally allow us to see their profound need for the Lord in much the same way that we are dependent on him today. Old Testament women had direct access to God, and he answered their pleas in much the same way that he answers ours. By studying their responses to challenges in the context of their world, we can be strengthened to respond to our challenges with greater faith. The purpose of scripture is to bring us to Christ—hundreds of women’s examples in scripture have tremendous potential to inspire us to that end.

Q: Why don’t we know or talk about women in scripture as much as men?

A: One reason is that we usually study a book of scripture from the same angle every time, reinforcing the same concepts and people. For example, we typically depend on what is taught in a Gospel Doctrine class to receive our direction and focus for our scripture study. In the limited time of a Sunday School class and from the outlined curriculum, the focus is most often on men with titles and leadership positions, leaving little opportunity for considering the women’s perspective and contributions. Another reason is that, until fairly recently, serious studies of women in the Bible were rare. Without branching into other resources, one will continue to see women’s importance in the Old Testament as simply bearing the children to perpetuate another generation.

View from the Top: A Conversation with Brent L. Top



Q: What changes are you making as the new department chair of Church History and Doctrine?

A: We are thinking in terms of how we can do more and do better with fewer resources. So I’m asking our faculty to look at curriculum. Are we doing exactly what we should be doing? How can we improve our teaching and our scholarship and be more productive? Then we’re looking at how we can hold our faculty a little more accountable and reward them when they really exceed expectations and bless the university and the lives of the students.

Q: What is your overriding goal as you facilitate change?

A: There’s a story told of Michelangelo. Supposedly he was asked how he was able to create such an incredible masterpiece like the David or Moses or the Pietà. He said, “I envision the end product, and then I chip away the things that don’t belong.” So I think my goal is to bless the lives of our students and to bless the Church and help lead people to the Savior and to exaltation, and we already have a clearly stated mission statement, a clearly stated purpose for Religious Education, so my job is to chip away the things that may prevent us from achieving that. These developments may be just a refocusing of the masterpiece rather than the extraneous pieces of marble that look nice but are not really part of the overall vision or mission.

Q: You wear many hats in your life. Not only do you teach and serve as the new department chair, but you are a stake president and you serve on the board of Deseret Book. What else are you involved with?

A: I have more on my plate than I care to have—that’s true. I served as a mission president in Illinois from 2004 to 2007, and when I came back and regained my position here I just thought I would be spending the rest of my life just teaching the scriptures; that’s what I love. I’ve served as associate dean for several years, but I was happy teaching and working on my projects The week I was appointed to be the new department chair—I was appointed to be department chair on a Wednesday—and on that very Saturday I was called to be the stake president of the Pleasant Grove Utah East Stake. I felt overwhelmed at that time, but I’m just trying to keep my head above water.

Q: Tell us about some of the projects you are working on and what people might expect to see available to them in the near future.

A: Over the last fifteen years or so, Bruce Chadwick and I have examined the effects of religion on the lives of our youth and young adults. We’ve done many studies on that and published in academic journals, the Ensign, and some books, but we have never gathered all of the academic work in one place. So in 2010 the Religious Studies Center will be producing our magnum opus—all the work that we have done on religion, how it blesses youth and their families. We’ll be looking at mental health, at academic achievement, at the impact on attitudes toward marriage, dating, and how it affects moral purity. It will be available through the Religious Studies Center early in 2010.

I have a new book coming out from Deseret Book on gardening, but not a book on how to garden. One of my passions is gardening, and another is photography, and obviously one of my passions is the gospel of Jesus Christ, so my wife and I put together a book that brings all three of those things together. It is a little gift book on gardening, basically the lessons we’ve learned about God and the gospel, and it will have about twenty little essays of gospel lessons, and it will also include some of our own photographs.

I’m also working with Robert L. Millet and Andrew C. Skinner, two former deans of Religious Education, as well as a colleague, Camille Fronk Olson producing a reference book that tentatively will be called the Latter-day Saint Encyclopedia—or the Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint Doctrine. And it will be a single volume, kind of everything you’ve ever wanted to know about doctrines and practices of the Church.

Q: Concerning Religious Education, what is it you bring to the table, what would you say your expertise is, and what is your place in Religious Education?

A: It is an enormous privilege to be on the religion faculty at Brigham Young University. I am now in my twenty-third year here, and it is incredible to be able to walk down the hall and have experts in all these different fields, and they have taught me so many things, and virtually everything that I’ve written through the years has been refined and honed from the great colleagues I have. My undergraduate degree is in history, and I have written a few pieces on Church history, but I guess my piece of the puzzle might be in the area of doctrine. I love the doctrines of the kingdom, and I am a firm believer in President Boyd K. Packer’s idea that the study of doctrine and the teaching of doctrine will change behavior more than the study of behavior will change it. I see that in our classes. The more we can help our students to understand doctrine, to appreciate doctrine, and to have testimonies of doctrine, the more we will be able to shape their lives. I’m not an expert at anything, but I guess I could say I’m a gospel mechanic. What I like to do is I take the doctrines and I break them apart piece by piece so that students can see all the components and how they fit together. I want my students to see how things connect, how they fit in the overall plan of salvation.