As much as non-specialists can be dangerous when they spout off, the fact is that they are only dangerous if people listen to them. The responsibility lies, in the end, with the reader to make good judgments about what is being read. Credentials don’t equal correctness, but credentials do tell you one thing. They tell you that the person who’s work you are reading has done his or her homework (literally). I don’t care what anyone says, a PhD or ThD is not an easy get. So, dear reader, if you want to know about the Bible and you want to avoid the dangers of being misled by people who may or may not know what they are talking about, let me recommend the following:
- Ask why the person you’re reading has the authority to say what he/she is saying. Why are his/her ideas more valuable than your own? Google the author, know who it is that you’re trusting.
- Ask where and to what degree the author is educated…and in what field for that matter (a PhD in Chemistry doesn’t make you an expert in Biblical Studies).
- Remember that the person who wrote the book you’re reading probably borrowed some of those ideas from other books. Find out which ones and maybe read them too.
- Get to know an expert personally and ask that person for advice. Most of the churches I’ve been a part of over the years have had at least one or two professors of theology or biblical studies hiding somewhere. If there’s nobody in your congregation, then email a prof at your local denominational seminary. I’m betting you’d get a very cordial reply.
- Instead of reading popular Christian literature about Jesus or the Bible, try reading a commentary along with your regular Bible reading. I’d recommend a very accessible series like NIV Application or Interpretation, or the New International Biblical Commentary. I talked my wife into doing this once and she said it was one of the richest devotional experiences she’s ever had.
The long and the short of it is this: buyer beware. Getting a book about the Bible published is no harder than getting a self-help book published, and we all know what nonsense those things can be. If you are a Christian you should take the Bible very seriously indeed, so consider your supplimentary reading carefully as well. And by the by, all of this goes doubly and triply so for internet sources and blogs (including this one…I don’t consider myself an expert on anything yet).
Jin and I just got back from Ottawa where I was attending the annual meeting of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies. I had the opportunity to present my first paper at an academic conference. The paper is called “(Re)Visionary History: Historiography and Religious Identity in the Animal Apocalypse,” and is based on some ideas that I worked on in my MA thesis. I presented it in the Ancient Historiography session, and in it I discuss the use of pseudonymous authorship and clean/unclean divisions in the imagery of the Animal Apocalypse of 1 Enoch 85-90. I won’t publish the paper here as I’ll be submitting it for publication in the edited volume that the session puts out each year, but if anyone wants a copy feel free to drop me an email.
It was a great conference over-all. My presentation went very well, and the paper was well received. I had the chance to argue with Prof. John Van Seters, which was an honour. There were any number of other interesting and enjoyable papers during the conference. I think that my two favorites were Ehud Ben Zvi‘s paper on whether the label “Deuteronomistic” is anything more than a modern scholarly construct, and John Kessler‘s paper on the “Empty Land” motif in Persian period Yehud. It was also great to meet some well-known OT scholars, as well as many other grad students. I got to put faces to a lot of names, which is always nice. Everyone was tremendously welcoming and though I was quite tired by the end, it was an excellent experience and I look forward to going again.
As a side note, I was involved in an online discussion with AKMA and Mark Goodacre a few weeks ago over whether it is better to read from a manuscript or to use skeletal notes during academic presentations. Though I argued there for manuscripts, I decided to take Dr. Goodacre’s advice and try presenting from notes alone. I must say, I believe that he was very right. I was able to hit all of my major points, I didn’t get bogged down in the complicated technical language you find in lots of presentations, and my friends tell me that mine was one of the more relaxed and accessible presentations they saw. I think that I’ll try the “notes only” formula again in future and see if it keeps working for me.
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?