Monthly Archives: April 2006

That’s “A. K. M. Adam,” Not “Scott Adams”

I have neither the time nor the foolishness to devote a lot of time to responding to Scott Adams’ recent forays into the field of theory-of-religion; a comprehensively prudent blogger would just say, “Discuss among yourselves.”

Lacking that degree of prudence, I may simply observe that mockery doesn’t constitute the acid text of sound teaching; humor depends to a very great extent on the observer’s unquestioned premises. A clever humorist ought to be able to wangle some absurdity out of almost any worldview — provided it’s one that neither s/he nor their auditors take quite seriously. By the same token, the unwillingness to see this or that as funny doesn’t necessarily make an audience “humorless” or over-serious. We can devote serious attention to the claims that [other] religious stances entail, but japery won’t be our best guide to evaluating the characteristics that our inquiries bring to the surface. (One may plausibly doubt that there’s a shared array of criteria by which we could reach judgments more useful than “That’s close to what I already believe” — but that’s not the point just now.) I share some of Adams’s distaste for a “respect” that precludes critical analysis, but I doubt that he has demonstrated the keen insight into religious phenomena that would warrant our taking his proposals as a guide to what we might do by way of mutual criticism.

My confidence in Adams as a thoughtful interlocutor diminishes inasmuch as his comments on scholarly rock star Bart Ehrman’s latest book suggest that he’s not the most attentive reader on the block. While I have not read Ehrman’s book, I would be surprised if he ascribed the vast range of transcriptional errors we see in the manuscript history of the New Testament to “semi-literate opinionated morons” (Adams’s report on Ehrman). If Adams wants to know “what the real argument is” relative to doctrines of Scripture and textual transmission (and the relation of biblical texts to factual error), he might begin by reading contemporary sources more carefully.

This

I’m trying to map out my forty minutes for Saturday’s Chicago Society of Biblical Research meeting. I know I can fill the time; the key (as I learned last spring, in the difference between a presentation at Notre Dame and my Winslow Lecture) boils down to organization, as Seabury’s Writing Group veterans can testify.

Some points I want to make:

  • Some perspective on controversies over “legitimacy” and “illegitimacy” in biblical interpretation, especially in light of Michael Fox’s recent essay on “faith-based scholarship”
  • My [still-too-casual] angle on semiotics and interpretation
  • How my angle affects the ways we think about theological interpretation
  • Main point of talk: The same way of thinking about semiotics/interpretation that helps me make sense of “theological interpretation” also helps me understand and articulate the value of secular interpretation of the Bible. I’m at home in that discussion, not because I believe less what the church says of the Bible, but because I respect and know the rules of the signifying practice of technical biblical scholarship (and academic discourse in general). One doesn’t need a totalizing rationale for the nature of Truth and textuality to warrant secular biblical interpretation — one need only the rare virtue of good, close reading. One doesn’t need to assent to the latent premises of literary discourse in order to admire and to interpret them well; one need not unite oneself to a theological tradition in order to read that tradition’s texts well.
  • Also helps explain our dowdy clothes (a professional colleague whom I shouldn’t quote without permission has referred to the Society of Biblical Literature as “the society of middle-aged white men who can’t dress themselves”) and unbearable ugliness of Volvos

That’s the basics of what I want to propose, perhaps even ending with the offensively utopian suggestion that we let go of feuding over whether biblical interpretation requires or proscribes theological commitment for its legitimacy. Rather than dressing up personal antipathies in disciplinary garb, we work toward enhancing the quality of one another’s readings on their own terms, and let God, or Time, or Nemesis, or who- or whatever adjudicate the legitimacy of our work.

Of course, I also have to write out all the stuff in between, and prepare for Wednesday’s and Friday’s classes. At least I’m not preaching in the next few days.

Shaloha to You, Too

We knew Alex Golub way back when his prestige appointment was Professor of Melanesian Hermeneutics at the University of Blogaria, when he used to keep Seabury wired and was still working on his dissertation. Now, though, he’s stepped onto the larger stage of academic stardom not only with his participation in the hip anthropologists’ Savage Minds blog, but also from his featured appearance in Inside Higher Education. I don’t have his autograph, I don’t think, but I have a copy of his book and am reading his next one (and was a bit player in the prequel).

Absorta Est Mors in Victoria

I am a man of frail, faint faith — ὀλιγόπιστος, oligopistos, as Jesus frequently calls his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel — and spending a Lent in reflection on death has not engendered an efflorescence of unwavering confidence in me. In hymn, Death no longer can appall, but once the hymn is over I’m as appalled as ever.

What I lack in faith, though, God provides in a generous abundance of the lives around me. Last night, Margaret and I felt the radiance of the reverent faith of the servers at St. Luke’s; they enacted the church’s believing through their unornamented observance of the ceremonies of the Easter Vigil. A moment-and-a-half’s reverent kneeling, a careful step, a creed in motion.

And several weeks ago, when Lent was new, Seabury gathered around the altar for a Friday midday mass, and someone had brought Elizabeth, a year-old child, along. Elizabeth was dressed in marvelous, brilliantly colorful clothing; and at the beginning of a season I had committed to spend in reflection on death, I was moved to tears by the glorious human gesture of dressing up our ephemeral, vulnerable mortality with all the bold grandeur that craft can muster. I will soon die, Elizabeth will soon die, but for these few days we can defy corruption with love, can defy gray ash with vibrant color, by God we can live!

My feeble faith doesn’t matter that much, in the end. A faith deeper and stronger, fuller and wiser, truer and more durable catches me up and bears me beyond the bounds of what my hobbled imagination can posit, to Truth that I cannot comprehend. Unlimited by the horizons of my judgment, faith surrounds and inhabits me, and John’s reverence, Elizabeth’s luminous attire, my weak faith, these provide a staging-ground for God’s invincible grace. Here I kneel; I can do no other.

What’s Up

If you noticed my recent reticence online, I can explain that this year I’m having a particularly acute case of my annual tax-phobia-stress. Every year, I resolve to track down an accountant to do them for me; every year, I put it off till too late. I’m going public with this year’s panic so that there’s no chance that my irrational dread be a secret, and that anybody can ask me, “Have you gotten your accountant yet?”

I think I have all the information I need to get my taxes out this weekend without filing for an extension. I am really, really determined to not do this next year.

Rolls Eyes, Smacks Forehead

The Secretary of the Chicago Society for Biblical Research has been after me for a long time, to read a paper at one of the meetings we hold (meetings that I hardly ever have time to go to, so why I should be reading a paper at one escapes me). The papers I remember typically concern Chicago-school sorts of interpretive questions — detailed social and litarary analyses of texts, good stuff — so when he emailed me a few weeks ago, I said that there’s really nothing I’m working on now that would answer. “Well, what are you working on?”

At this point, most of my readers would have had the common sense to cough, or change the subject, or lose his email. I, however, am simple enough that I just told him what was on my present work agenda (kneading some of the ideas from my last year of lectures and papers into a preface for the Fortress Press book) — not at all the usual run of CSBR fare, more broadly hermeneutical. “We can take a hermeneutics paper,” he said. “Plus, it would be really rough; it’s work in progress,” I apologized. “We assume that all these papers are work in progress,” he assured me, and I had no polite way out.

So a week from Saturday, I’ll be presenting a paper on the legitimacy of academic biblical interpretation, a sort of mirror-image consideration of the questions concerning theological interpretation that I’ve been chewing on for the past year. Few in the audience will have heard my previous talks, so I can reuse some of that material, and I’ll bend it around to confront a different set of questions, but I still have to come up with a formal academic paper for the scholars of one of the world’s most theologically-sophisticated cities, in ten days.

More later. Rolls eyes, smacks forehead, again.

Non-Entry

At the end of a busy day, I wish I had something short enough and weighty enough to blog. There are plenty of topics about which I have long pieces to write — but they come in second to doing taxes and writing the preface to one of the books coming out this year. I have been reflecting a lot about death this Lent, and I expect to write down some of the cosmically-inconsequential, but personally important, nexuses of what I’ve been trying to think out.

Margaret’s coming home Wednesday; they’re actually getting near the end of classes, and she’ll be home for some of the summer. That’something I haven’t even vaguely dreamed of: being together every day.

But now it’s time to go to sleep.

You Never Miss Your Water When The Sump Pump Overflows

Show me someone who doesn’t care much about sump pumps, and I’ll show you someone whose basement never flooded, and who doesn’t have a hole in her or his basement floor isn’t filling up with ominously murky-looking water.

Our hard-working emergency maintenance guy put in a new sump pump for us yesterday, and let me tell you, I am intensely interested by sump pumps, and delighted that ours is working fine.