Discernment and the Significance of Storytelling

Tyler Davis awarded prestigious Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship
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Tyler Davis, MDiv ’15, is one of this year’s 23 Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellows.

The Newcombe award of $27,500 will support the final year of his dissertation, “Spirit in the Whirlwind: Discernment, Divine Activity, and the Limits of Political Theology.” Davis’ dissertation explores the theologies of discernment and the significance of the stories people tell about God’s movement in history. His research focuses particularly on situations of social constraint and injustice, through what Davis describes as the “familiar yet fraught archive of popular interpretations of the weather as signs of divine activity.” Davis traces how naming God’s activity in the weather catalyzes dreams and praxes of freedom. He grounds his work in an extended analysis of a specific Black oral tradition from Waco, Texas.

Of the tradition, Davis says “This storytelling tradition claims that a tornado striking the city in 1953 signals God’s reckoning with the regional history of anti-black mob violence — particularly claiming that the tornado followed the precise path of the 1916 racial terror lynching of Jesse Washington, an event W.E.B. Du Bois called ‘the Waco Horror.’”

Davis first heard the Black storytelling tradition recounted by a friend over a decade ago, while living in Waco. The power of the tradition stayed with him, shaping the way he encountered and interpreted texts and voices throughout his theological education. Recognizing the theological power of the tradition and the imagination that went into its making, Davis acknowledges its significance not only in the context of regional historical memory, but in the stakes and uses of discussing God’s movement in the contemporary world. “Over the course of my doctoral studies, I came to think that if I had something interesting to say about theology and ethics, a good place to start would be to articulate why this specific story and others like it are of such great magnitude.”

Through his research, he has gained a new sensitivity regarding the power, complexity, and substance of popular theologies. He views the theme of discernment as more than just a theological search for who God is and how God acts, instead calling it “a window into the spirit and faith of people who refused to let constraining systems wholly order the possibilities of their lives.” Davis hopes his work will bring into focus the work of naming divine activity as a theological resource for contesting unjust arrangements and envisioning liberation.

Davis describes his time at Princeton Theological Seminary as formative. He specifically recognizes the contributions of the scholars who helped to define his intellectual sensibilities; the community he and his partner, the Rev. Emily Davis, MDiv ’15, engaged in with fellow seminarians; and the wider community of First Baptist Church of Trenton, as influential to his education and commitment to sharing life with people across multiple communities.

Davis plans to complete his research and dissertation in 2021 at Baylor University.

Editor’s note: Nyle Fort, MDiv ’14, also received a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship this year. An article on Fort and his scholarship was published last week.

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Associate Pastor, Faith Lutheran Church, Bismarck, ND

Sylvia Bull, Class of 2015

“My field education placements lifted up my gifts for ordained ministry, and the dual-degree program helped me develop the skills for ministry.”