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?

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3 thoughts on “Never Again?

  1. Great post, Colin. So, do you think that “original” is a sound theological/spiritual category by which to evaluate one’s PhD or career as a scholar? I’m honestly not sure either way.On the one hand, “faithful” would be a better criteria. Sometimes being faithful also involves being original. A colleague of mine once told me not to worry about writing something original but rather to aim to write something true. Apparently she borrowed that exhortation from CS Lewis. I think he/she is right. “Originality” needs to be de-mythologized. On the other hand, the Truth is so rich, varigated and beautiful that originality shouldn’t really that much of a problem. But even in this view, originality is subordinated to truth. Plus, it takes time and patience to find out what has been said and what else there is to say.What’cha think?Also, I think that we “wanna-be” theological scholars need to emphasize the history of reflection on our subject matter a lot more than we have. We want to run right ahead to saying something “constructive” and “original” that we don’t take the time to bathe in the deep waters of our heritage. And yet, on the other hand, I’d hate to see theological scholarship become nothing but a cataloguing of old views. So, in the end… I’m not sure of anything. I guess I’m a good PhD student 🙂Your musings are really interesting, though.

  2. I’m in your camp on the primacy of truth (or even faithfulness) over originality. The problem is I think that we’re on the minority side. Another problem is that truth and faithfulness are much harder qualities to describe or even notice than originality. I often think that one of the reasons that our culture’s focus on demonstrable phenomena as the prime category for success is a matter of sheer laziness. It’s just easier to notice originality, in much the same way that it’s easier to notice rising profits or increased attendance. Those other forms of success are often so intangible that we just can’t be bothered to bother with them.

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