Never Again?

Just the other day AKMA was lamenting about his perceived lack of impact in the theological guild.  There are some good encouragements and some very astute observations in the comments from that post that I strongly recommend you read.  That post and those comments, in concert with conversations in the TA room here at Mac and some other stuff that’s going on around the College, have gotten me thinking about the nature of the biblical and theological guild these days.

There was a time, especially in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries when the work of a single scholar could bust the whole enterprise open.  Gunkel, Bultmann, even Childs who’s work is often dismissed…all of these people and more blew the doors off of the scholarly community.  I wonder if that’s even possible anymore.

One of the things that is constantly on the mind of a PhD student is how to make that friggin dissertation work.  Every institution that I know of has listed as an explicit requirement for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy that the disseration “make an original contribution to the field of X.”  Of course there’s a part of me that agrees that this is absolutely necessary.  How can you be an expert without demonstrating that you can push the discussion forward?  Another part of me is forced to admit that “pushing the discussion forward” means an entirely different thing now than it has before.  There was a time when a single scholar could actually “push the discussion forward.”  Now all one of us can hope to do is to nudge the monolith half a milimeter one way or the other.

Take the work of Cristo Van der Merwe.  Chances are even some biblical scholars out there don’t really know his name.  The fact is, however, that Van der Merwe, in his relentless attempts to engage OT/HB research with the latest in modern linguistics, has made serious contributions to our understanding of Hebrew.  In my opinion his Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar should be the standard text in the field.  But it ain’t.  It ain’t, and there are two reasons for that.  In the first place there is the “old school” that needs to defend the validity and importance of its work, and so upstarts need to be put in their place.  In the second place there’s me, the (hopefully) up-and-coming scholar who’s job it is to show why my work is better than the last guy’s.  And so what should be a sea-change, is instead just one more stiff breeze.

I don’t know if there’s anything to be done about all of this.  I don’t even know if anything should be done about all of this.  Even as I’m writing this I feel ambiguous, conscious of the fact that even nudging the conversation is a pretty incredible accomplishment.  Having said that there is a part of me that is also working to redifine success in the field of academic biblical studies.  We need to move success beyond publishing contracts and good reviews, beyond the glory of 5,000 super-specialized uber-nerds relishing our work, and toward the grace of 30 undergrads who are shocked and challenged by the biblical texts, or the honour of bringing our humble contribution to the community of faith in worship services and bible studies.  This isn’t just about academics either.  As a whole our culture has so badly mis-difined success.

Is it true that the academic landscape will never again be redrawn by a single hand?  Yes, it probably is.  But who says that’s a bad thing?

What Words Do…

I’ve been thinking a lot about language and linguistics lately.  It’s possible that this is a by-product of the fact that I’m taking a rather challenging course in advanced grammar and linguistics.  Just a guess, it’s hard to say why I think what I think.  In any case, one of the most interesting and engaging concepts that I’ve come across lately is related to the question of what language is for.  There’s a linguist out there, a guy named Halliday (I quoted him about a zillion years ago in my last post), who suggests that language has a whole bunch of different functions.  That is to say, language does a lot of things.  Most of these things (I won’t bother listing them all, it’s kind of complicated) eventually clump together as we grow older.  Eventually the most important clump, or meta-function, is the informational function.  Language for adults is mostly about communicating information, about telling something to somebody that he/she doesn’t know (or that we think he/she doesn’t know, whatever).

Here’s the thing, though.  For kids this is one of the least important functions that language performs.  I’m not sure exactly when this happens, I haven’t read all of the relavant research, but early on in life when we are learning language we don’t really think about language as a tool to give others new information.  If you have little kids who have only recently learned to talk watch them and see if this seems right or not.  It works with my son.  If he sees a picture of a cow he says “Cow!”  I’m pretty sure he’s not telling me it’s a cow.  He knows I know that.  What he’s telling me is that he likes cows.  He’s using language to communicate not information, but emotion.  He’s engaging with me relationally.

This is, I think, why we have so much difficulty with poetry.  We are so fixated on what the poem means that we completely miss what it is that poems are for.  Poetry is trying to do something other than give information, it is trying to create an emotional encounter.

Let me put it another way.  If I come home and my wife looks at me angrily and says “You’re late,” she is not using the informational meta-function of language.  She is not trying to inform me of the fact that I am late.  If I assume that her words are being used to communicate information the evening is likely going to go badly for me.

Your words do a lot of things, and though communicating information is an important one of those things, it isn’t the only one.  As an excercise today, try being more conscious of the relational aspect of your language and the language of those around you.  Be attentive to what your words do and not just to what they mean.  It is, at the very least, a fun experiment.