A Poet. A Scholar.
Rev. Rajkumar Boaz Johnson, PhD
Professor of Hebrew Bible and Theological Studies
Chair, Department of Christian Life and Thought
Biblical and Theological Studies major, graduating in December 2013
Deima met “Dr. Boaz” in his course Old Testament Poetry and Wisdom Literature, which launched their collaboration and Deima’s translations of the Bible from Hebraic-English text to African American poetry. Here's a glimpse of their conversation and reflections on working together.
Deima: Learning with and from Dr. Boaz is like taking a trip into time and the present. He makes the Bible so applicable to the now that it’s beautiful. Learning the Bible from Dr. Boaz has given me a different approach to life.
Being African American has played a big factor in my learning and studying Biblical and Theological Studies. Dr. Boaz has shown how important it is to be who you are and not to deny where you come from. Past experiences, even though they may not technically be your own, are your history and make you who you are. The object is to look at the past and see how it can change your present and teach those who come next about the world that once was.
Boaz: I was born in one of slums of Delhi, India. As a kid, on several occasions, I saw all the things which have been shown in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. At that time, I made up my mind: "I will work hard and get out of this slum, and when I get out, I will teach others to eradicate human trafficking and slavery throughout the world."
I have a deep passion for biblical and theological studies—the study of God’s Word, in its original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and how it has been interpreted throughout history in a diversity of people’s groups and languages. This forces me to engage with the fields of sociology, anthropology, biology . . . the whole range of liberal arts studies. It forces me to seek solutions to the problems of the human condition. I am eager to pass on this excitement and its ramifications to the next generation. There is no better place to do this than North Park University.
Deima: Once Dr. Boaz knows your gifts and your strengths, he likes to use them. This has made me a stronger and better person. Sitting down and talking with Dr. Boaz is like talking to a friend; he is so genuine and has a beautiful soul. My North Park experience has been a memorable one because of Dr. Boaz. I remember a moment in class where I shared a poem for a writing assignment on the book of Psalms and Dr. Boaz appreciated it so much. The attentiveness that he shows toward his students shows how much God works through him and his work.
Boaz: My work in Bible translation began during my PhD research. I found in the Dead Sea Scrolls the fact that the Bible in its original languages was sung. It was not in prose form, as we have it in modern translations.
My teaching ventures in various world cultures made me realize that in several cultures the song genres were the primary mode of passing on tradition—unlike in Western society, where it is the written word in prose. In the light of this, I started a journey in which I have trained several students in different parts of the world to translate the Bible into the song of their own language and culture.
I observed that the above is true of the African American culture. The earliest interpretations of African American life were in song, and it continues to be in song. In the light of this, I have been looking for African American students who are gifted in poetry. Deima is one such student. She is an amazing poet. So I encouraged her in my classes to write her papers in song. This developed into the Bible translation project.
Deima: Last semester, Dr. Boaz approached me with the idea of doing an independent study on translating the books of Genesis and John into poetry. Spoken word is the art form that was used to convey this. Being African American and a poet, I thought it was the coolest idea ever—the idea of putting the Bible in my words, transforming my feeling into words that were influenced by God Himself. Dr. Boaz gave me all the tools I needed in order to be true to the text. He sat with me and listened to me as I spoke and jumped into the word of God.
It was such a hard task. To be so immersed in the Word of God is not easy. The art of dedication was something that I had to practice because this was unlike any other assignment that I had. Dr. Boaz gave me encouragement and was there every step of the way and I am truly thankful for that.
Boaz: Deima is a unique African American thinker. She thinks in African American poetry. In this project, she takes my translations of the Bible into English, which is set in the poetic styles of the original Hebrew and Greek—I call this Hebraic-English poetry—and converts these into African American poetry. My goal is to see the Bible sung in African American churches. So this is intended to be a long-term project.
It seems to me that sadly many universities force diverse thinkers like Deima to think like middle class white people. In the process, the creativity of students like Deima is destroyed.When she translates the Hebraic poetry texts which I give her, her eyes light up, and Deima becomes a different person. Her creativity is maxed. It gives me great joy to see this happen.
Deima: Dr. Boaz allowed me to step outside of my box. Presenting at the student symposium was something that I had never done before. It was the transformation of being a student to being a scholar. I was using language that I had never used before. There is this transition now of being a student to becoming a Bible scholar. It’s the art of cultivating ideas and making my mark here at North Park. Dr. Boaz is giving me the platform to be heard.
My future career and life plans are going to North Park Theological Seminary and getting a master’s in theology. North Park has been getting me ready for this next step by immersing me in diversity. My courses have stretched me in a way that makes me see the world in its totality. I am excited for the next step and wherever God leads me.