Monthly Archives: July 2013

Leaving Glasgow

Just about four years ago, I began a series of posts about the experience of relocating from North carolina to Glasgow; this evening, I’m beginning a series of posts about the experience of relocating from Glasgow to Oxford.

So, thing one: Since moving to Glasgow, my admiration for the work of Alasdair Gray has amplified a zillionfold. I’ve posted video about him, photos of his mural in the Hillhead Subway Station; here’s “Eden and After,” a painting in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland (it exists in several other versions as well). I would have used it as a point of reference when I next lectured on Genesis 2-3:

Eden and After, by Alasdair Gray

I hate to say goodbye to the city of Gray — a great man in a great city.

Cheers, Jordon!

Great news about a great blogger and a thoughtful church guy: Jordon Cooper is now VP of Community Development at Stewart Property Holdings, continuing his long work against homelessness in cooperation with local social justice agencies.

Jordon, Wendy, Mark, and Oliver are long-distance heroes of mine. It was great to get together with Jordon back in the early days of Blogaria, and I’ve been reading his blog through thick and thin since then. Maybe Mark will want to come to Oxford….

Re-Enter The Hero

This evening, while conducting important research, I learned something that startled me.

I should explain that I’m a lifelong Baltimore Orioles fan, starting from when my dad took me to a Meet the Players event at Southtown Plaza in Rochester NY, and I was greeted by Red Wings players and coaches (including Luke Easter (coach), and possibly Freddie Valentine and maybe Mark Belanger?). My all-time hero was Brooks Robinson.

My Hero, Brooks Robinson
(I know I used to have this baseball card)

Recently I had been hearing talk from the sabermetric community about Brooks — boosting the status of other third basemen, knocking my hero. And I have to admit that his batting skills (wOBA .322) were not to be compared with Schmidt or a handful of others. I thought I had heard that his fielding was over-rated as well — I didn’t look any of this up, because it would be too depressing to see the latest mathematical analysis disclosing that my hero, the great Brooks Robinson, was acclaimed only on the basis of hype, grit, and the other ingredients that the anti-Beane traditionalists held dear.

So when I was, ahem, researching this evening, I was knocked out to discover that Fangraphs lists Brooks as the player who made the single greatest career contribution to his team’s defence — if I read the charts correctly, that’s a calculation of how many runs the balls that he successfully fielded (theoretically) saved his team. His Fld column — based, it must be said, on much less complete statistics as modern fielding measurements, which are themselves not yet a satisfactory measure of a player’s defensive ability — saved the Orioles almost 300 runs. Only four other players saved as many as 200. Four of the top ten are heroes of mine (Robinson, Mark Belanger, Roberto Clemente, and Cal Ripken), and three were Orioles. (My dad’s hero Carl Yasztremski is up there, too, and including Paul Blair four of the top twelve were Orioles.)

Again, there are reservations and cavils to be made. I’m not making the claim that Brooks Robinson was in every respect the greatest defensive player of all time, nor even the greatest defensive third baseman of all time (though the statistics make that an arguable case). It is heartening to see, though, that they don’t smash the reputation of my childhood hero. Well done, Brooks.

Leaving Taggart to Join Morse

It’s hard to adjust to the prospect of leaving Glasgow behind, when it has been such a welcoming home to us,

Jim Taggart, in the episode Gingerbread

 

even though it means we’re going to Oxford, where we’re already being welcomed, and I’m bring put to satisfying work.

Inspector Morse

 

Apparently there are many university murders in both locations. We promise to be on the lookout for crazed professional rivals, nefarious gangsters, psychopathic stalkers, religious fanatics, and general malefactors.

Shipping News

If you had been waiting impatiently for a fresh analysis of the syntax of the Epistle of James, you can satisfy your hunger now with my long-gestating contribution to the Baylor “Handbooks to the Greek Text” series.

James: A Handook on the Greek Text

 

is now shipping. Everyone who doubted that I actually was writing a book about James (seriously, when I started, James was still a recent addition to the New Testament canon) can prove to themselves that it”s real by ordering a copy or two. It makes great beach reading (if you have some Greek and are curious about how the bits of James go together). It doesn’t cover as much as does Dale Allison’s 800-page alternative, recently released in the ICC series, but it’s a lot less expensive.

Why Exegesis?

It’s a blog, not a through-composed book or essay, so I can jump from topic to topic if I want to!

What is our investment in identifying our work as “exegesis” rather than less exotic words such as “interpretation”? If the word “exegesis” we’re extirpated from English usage, we wouldn’t miss much (and we would be protected from tedious preachers’ insistence on throwing the word into sermons altogether too often). At the same time, biblical scholars do seem to read and study the Bible differently from the way that literary scholars, for instance, study Austen or Morrison. But then, scholars do devote concentrated, word-by-word attention to Joyce, Eliot, and Dickinson; what accounts for the differences, and what can we learn from the ways that readers study the texts they do?

First, it is not irrelevant to note that the works of any modestly prolific novelist outstrip the Bible in sheer volume by a considerable margin. It would be impractical for a literature scholar to make his way through Silas Marner in the degree of detail that I’ve just dedicated to the Epistle of James (and my own comments on James are dwarfed by Dale Allison’s 800-page commentary). Life is too short, and the results probably not interesting enough, to warrant diagramming every sentence, parsing every verb, considering every possible nuance in every construction, in a single long novel — let alone in the corpus of an author. (Saying that I specialise in the Epistle of James is — by scope — a bit like saying that I specialise in Chapter 1.XIX of Tristram Shandy). Length itself is one reason readers of other bodies of literature don’t treat their subjects in the same way that biblical scholars treat theirs.

That point can be underscored by the fact that interpreters of poetry — usually or often, shorter units of literature — do tend to devote the sort of focused, intense attention to every aspect of their texts. While relatively little of the Bible is customarily identified as “poetry,” the example of poetry-interpretation diminishes to some extent the distinctiveness of biblical interpretation.

Moreover, particular works of prose literature — say, Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake — also elicit word-by-word analysis. This may be due in part to Joyce’s having the Bible (and the Odyssey and the Code of Canon Law) as models; all of these precursor texts have elicited exegetical commentary over the ages. At any rate, it suffices for now to note that some long prose works seem to warrant detailed technical analysis even though those stand out as atypical.

Let’s consider biblical exegesis as part of a spectrum of scholarly attention that runs from, say, Kane and Abel (a popular best seller to which few people would dedicate much study) to the Torah (which has been studied letter-by-letter for thousands of years). It’s hard to find good examples at the “plain” end of the spectrum, since once a work has become very popular, it tends to attract certain sorts of critical attention willy-nilly; still, particular works of popular literature will fall further along the spectrum than others (there is more critical attention to Harry Potter than to Jonathan Livingston Seagull). Most “serious” literature would fall toward the middle of the spectrum: studied for style, themes, characters, and various general characteristics of the work as a whole, but less so for the individual sentences and words. Poetry — characterised by intense focus and, generally, more brevity than novels — will be studied more closely than novels; one reads “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” differently than Moby-Dick. Biblical scholarship of the technical, academic sort lies in the neighbourhood of poetry, of Joyce’s longer prose works, and the intense interpretation of Torah.

These neighbours are not obviously related to the Bible by style or genre (well, apart from the Torah, obviously). Matthew’s Gospel isn’t a poem, nor the sort of enigmatic prose of Finnegan’s Wake. Why do we read some texts this way, while others (say, Robinson Crusoe) we read differently? Are there intrinsic qualities of the text that compel, or elicit, certain kinds of attention? Is there an ethics of interpretation that regulates kin of interpretive attention?

[Again, more to come]

Building Blocks of Knowledge

Margaret and I were ambling into the office this morning, talking about her book Our Only Hope: More Than We Can Ask or Imagine (forthcoming from Pickwick Press, autumn 2013), when one of us casually referred to ‘books in print.’ Since we both have worked in bookstores and libraries at times, we shared a particular memory that will seem peculiar to young folks these days.

To wit: Once upon a time, kiddies, there was a book published every year whose title was Books In Print (it still is printed, evidently, though I can hardly imagine who would buy it now). It included what it said on the cover — the publication information for every book in the USA whose publisher had print copies available. If you wanted to track down a book for library use, or to order a copy of your own, you would go to Books In Print, find it by title or author, write down the publication information, and convey that data to a librarian or bookseller.

It was, as you may imagine, an unwieldy fat volume, with supplements published at regular intervals, but before digital databases and the Internet and Amazon, this was how we located copies of the books we wanted to read and buy. Nowadays the prospect of a print book which lists every book available defies imagination. Practically everything is in print one way or another; how would one encompass all the books from all the publishing entities in one book? The idea of having to go someplace and look something up in Books In Print (regular people didn’t ordinarily own copies, in my experience) rather than just looking at Amazon or WorldCat seems bizarre. And writing down publication data and carrying it, or mailing it, to the person from whom you wanted a copy….

Yet this was how your parents or grandparents used to deal with book acquisitions in the pre-Net world. Sometimes I’m amazed that we read as much as we did — but then, we weren’t distracted by Facebook.

As It Was?

This hasn’t been much of a year for blogging for me — mostly just sermons and apologies for not blogging more. This is due partly to persistent problems with the backend software and perhaps my server company, but mostly to my falling out of the habit of blogging. Work was beastly this past year (not my lovely, brilliant, delightful students, nor my diligent, cooperative, supportive colleagues, but the workload and the alignment of omens about the future), I had hard writing to do just for work and administrative purposes, and I don’t like moaning about my working conditions. So if I got to the end of a day tired of extracting words from my brain, and frustrated by developments at work, I wasn’t inclined to write anything particular in a blog.

Head Cases

 

A while back, though, Stephanie Booth — one of the longtime regulars in Joi Ito’s IRC channel — challenged a number of us old-timers to renew our participation in blogging. She proposed a “Back To Blogging” movement, and in light of the increasing Matrix-isation of Facebook and Google users, her call to arms stuck in my imagination. I missed the ten days she specified. Whoops. But I Christopher Roussel have has ironed out a couple of wrinkles in my WordPress installation, and everything seems to be working today, so maybe I’ll give this “blogging” phenomenon another go. After more than eleven years (for me), maybe it’ll really catch on.

What Is Exegetical Method?

[As part of writing out a book on exegetical method — the approaches, the how-to parts, the consequences parts, and so on — I’m beginning with some introductory writing on the subject. This will probably grow into a first chapter, perhaps with my earlier posts on “What Makes Exegesis Difficult?” At any rate, this is what I think, not my fully researched and documented formal conclusions.]

“Exegetical method” sounds as though it should be straightforward. Do this, then this, remember that, and poof! That’s exegesis. To a certain extent, I imagine that students expect that as well; they have learned to make scrambled eggs, to knit scarves, to pitch a tent, to drive an auto. Now, teach us the method for producing exegesis. Likewise, non-practitioners may imagine that appropriate method lies behind our confidently announced interpretations. Merely indicating the topic suggests that there is a thing called exegetical method, that it lies behind the process of what can rightly be called “exegesis,” and that somebody who cares to practice exegesis should learn the method, and then be equipped to deliver the goods.

Erasmus, 1st Edition Greek New Testament

 

Many books about exegesis and method underscore this premise by setting out a series of steps for conducting exegesis. The number and order of these steps vary, but they express the sense that by doing identifiable things in an appropriate process, the results will be — if not always correct or even sound — at least exegetical. Student preachers and adult ed leaders very often refer to “my exegesis of X or Y” (even some experienced leaders do so), with the attendant connotation of interpretive authority. They have performed the steps they were taught, and have arrived at this interpretive result. That’s exegesis.

At the same time, some voices have called this model into question. In lectures at Yale Divinity School, Brevard Childs occasionally referred to “the thirty-three exegetical steps for beating a text into a pulp.” And obviously, not every student who follows the thirty-three, or ten, or twelve, or sixteen steps does so successfully; some students receive high marks, others low marks. If a student receives a low mark, but follows all the designated steps, has she still practiced warranted, authoritative “exegesis”? What is the difference between “good exegesis,” “bad exegesis,” and “not exegesis”?

In order to understand such questions, and thereby to understand what subsequent entries will say about exegetical method, we ought to work toward an understanding of what people mean by “exegesis,” what people want exegesis for, and how we can reasonably expect to be understood when we (as practitioners of this craft) refer to our work as exegesis. No one benefits if we just state a stipulated definition that ordinary readers and listeners won’t recognise, and such artificial definitions increase the likelihood that we’ll be heard as making claims that differ from what we (in our stipulated sense of the term) would defend as what we really were up to. Similarly, if we ourselves are utterly convinced that we are doing something different from what any outsider can observe us to be doing, our definition of our practice may be defective. The more precisely we can name what we do, what that entails, how one could dispute or refute our claims, and why it matters, the more clear, open, honest, and reliable our public discourse will be.

Thus the question: what is exegetical method? The tradition of assigning series of steps that cumulatively lead to “exegesis” is honoured by time, by the authority of notable author-teachers who have promoted the idea, and by the apparent success of students who have learned exegesis by this way. Such warrants cannot lightly be dismissed. At the same time, some authorities (such as Childs) have called the tradition into question, and we can demonstrate certain drawbacks to both the premise and to its consequences among students who practice it.

[To be continued…]