Saturday, October 24, 2009

J. Z. Smith on Pedagogical Lying

Jonathan Z. Smith has a provocative piece at the Chicago website for the Center for Teaching & Learning, called "The Necessary Lie: Duplicity in the Disciplines". Here are two excerpts:

We lie, it seems to me, in a number of ways. We sometimes cheerfully call the lie words like 'generalization' or 'simplification,' but that's not really what we're doing. We're really lying, and lying in a relatively deep fashion, when we consistently disguise, in our introductory courses, what is problematic about our work.

I think there is very little to justify introductory lying. In the case of the introductory courses, we produce incredibly mysterious objects because the students have not seen the legerdemain by which the object has appeared. The students sense that they are not in on the joke, that there is something that they don't get, so they reduce the experience to "Well, it's his or her opinion."

I realize that Smith's "lying" is a harsh term and he's doing it to be provocative. But maybe that's how we should regard our temptation to over-generalize and over-simplify in our teaching. Sometimes we're torn because sometimes the easiest examples we can use to make a profound point with our students aren't quite right and explaining them correctly loses the point we're trying to get across. What are we to do?

Let me give an example. It would really be pedagogically useful if Q (the hypothetical saying source that Matthew and Luke independently used) actually existed. Then we can start to get our students thinking about historical sources for Jesus that lay outside the canon. Q was never canonized but its contents are in the canonical Matthew and Luke. Thus, Q lies halfway between our canonical sources and non-canonical sources. Q's contents are not strange to our students but its structure and organization are. Indeed, Q promises a different way about early Christian thinking about Jesus, a way that was not relentlessly focused on the cross. But to make this point with intellectual integrity, we have to point out that the extent of Q isn't really known with much clarity (it could have had a passion for all we know) and even that are serious problems with its very existence. What are we to do?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The deus ex machina of context

One way Christians all over the theological spectrum attempt to deal with troubling passages in the Bible is by emphasizing the difference between the writer's historical context and our own. For instance, I recently heard a theologian who wished to avoid making exclusive claims on behalf of Christianity explain away the exclusive claims of 1 John by arguing that 1 John is about the conflict within the Johannine community. 1 John does not, therefore, address contemporary inter-religious dialogue.

My intent here is not to say anything about 1 John or inter-religious dialogue, but to address this method of dealing with problem passages.

Every word in the Bible was originally addressed to someone else, to some situation other than our own. This point is probably a truism. But, if this is correct, then one of the tasks of those who accept these texts as normative or relevant for today is to ask how those words from the past can "leap the gap" - to use Richard Hays's phrase - and address very different situations. This leap is necessary not only when the Bible seems foreign and obsolete, but also when it sounds familiar and comforting. This leap is an unavoidable consequence of reading words addressed to someone else as addressed to us. That is, this leap is an unavoidable consequence of having Scripture.

If I'm on the right track, then the otherness of the biblical writer's context cannot, of itself, render a text irrelevant for contemporary questions. The question for those who read the Bible as Scripture is not whether a given biblical author speaks immediately to our situation - they never do. For this reason, I don't see how arguments such as the one mentioned above can avoid special pleading.

I am not saying that historical context is irrelevant for reading the Bible as Scripture. Quite the opposite. I am saying that any attempt to limit the significance of a particular passage to its Sitz im Leben implies that there are some other passages which speak immediately and simply to contemporary situations.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Deliverance of God

As many of you know, Duke's very own Douglas Campbell has a new book out--The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Reading of Justification in Paul. Many of us at Duke have been involved in some fashion with the production of this gargantuan volume.

The good news is that so far DOG (as it is known among initiates) is receiving quite the praise in the blogosphere.

Loren Rosson (The Busybody) writes: "Let me start by saying that I'm in awe of The Deliverance of God. There hasn't been a book of its kind since Sanders, pressing us to take a long look behind ourselves and then ahead again with new lenses. Parts of it need to be read at least twice for proper digestion, so don't expect to breeze through it curled up on the couch with a brandy snifter. In addition to the required mental exercise is the physical, which you'll get from lugging the damn thing around: it comes in at 936 pages, 1218 including endnotes. Is it worth all the effort? Unquestionably."

Chris Tilling (Chrisendom) has even gone so far as to call it "the most important book to have been published since Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism."

I’m sure there will be many more reviews to come; I just thought it worthwhile to report the good news so far.

And here's a link to go and buy the book:

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Translation Contest: Bultmann!

This is the first ever Duke Newt translation contest/suggest a better sign contest.

This street sign comes from Rudolf-Bulmann Straße in Marburg.

The sign reads:

"Prof. D. Bultmann D.D. (1884-1976) suchte die christliche Botschaft gegenüber dem Wahrheitsbewußtsein der Neuzeit zu verantworten."

The challenge is:

A: Offer your own tranlation of the sign


B: Create your own description of Bultmann--your own "Rudolf-Bultmann-Straße" sign

Friday, October 9, 2009

Bultmann's Birthday

It was a warm afternoon in Marburg.

A Thursday. August 20.

His 125th birthday.

I sang "Zum Geburtstag viel Glück!" to him.

We talked a bit.

And then I rubbed his nose for good luck.

That was all.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Duke #14 Worldwide!

The Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings 2009 are now out. Duke students will be happy to know that Duke has basically stood its ground, coming in at #14 worldwide this year. For those graduate students considering Ph.D. studies in Religion, these overall rankings confirm Rusty Reno’s recent assessment of Duke’s merits at First Things.


As a Canadian, I was also elated to see 11 Canadian universities make the top 200:


McGill University moved up from #20 to #18.

University of Toronto moved up from #41 to #29.

University of British Columbia slid from #34 to #40.

University of Alberta moved up from #74 to #59.

Université de Montréal slid from #91 to #107.

University of Waterloo moved up from #129 to #113.

Queen’s University basically stood its ground at #118.

McMaster University slid from #117 to #143.

University of Calgary moved up from #170 to #149.

University of Western Ontario moved up from #159 to #150.

Simon Fraser University slid from #164 to #196.


For students thinking of pursuing doctoral work, let me make a plug for the University of Toronto. Toronto’s #29 ranking (again in conjunction with Reno’s recent rankings of Graduate programs in Theology) indicates a little-known secret: the University of Toronto is a fantastic place to pursue graduate work in Religion, and biblical studies in particular. I actually have a hard time believing Toronto only ranks 29th in the world, but perhaps I am unduly influenced by the fact that it is so strong in my own field of study. Toronto School of Theology (which is made up of a federation of seven theological schools and 105 regular faculty members!), the Centre for the Study of Religion, the Centre for Jewish Studies, and the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies together provide abundant resources to study biblical literature. Further, the U. of Toronto library system is the fourth largest academic library in North America (after Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley). All of this offered in the heart of a vibrant, cosmopolitan city! 



Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Pauline "Mystery"

Last week, during my stay in Marburg, I had the opportunity to meet with Friedrich Avemarie, who is Professor of NT at Philipps-Universität Marburg. (Marburg, by the way, seemed to me to be a wonderful place to do research or graduate work in NT. I did some work of my own in their library and had the chance to meet with a few of their doctoral students, who were all very friendly and hard at work on interesting projects). Professor Avemarie is, of course, the author of important works such as Tora und Leben. Untersuchungen zur Heilsbedeutung der Tora in der frühen rabbinischen Literatur, for which he is perhaps most widely known. He is also a very generous host; and I say this not just because he paid for my coffee and gave me some books.

Professor Avemarie is currently one of the editors (along with J. Frey, M. Bockmuehl, and H.-J. Klauck) of the WUNT II series. One of the books he gave me is from this series: Pablo T. Gadenz’s Called from the Jews and from the Gentiles: Pauline Ecclesiology in Romans 9-11. The dissertation on which this monograph is based was completed at the Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome) and directed by Prof. Jean-Noël Aletti.

The book is a fascinating study of Rom 9-11 in many respects, but I wanted to offer one extended quotation that I found especially provocative. This comes from the chapter on Rom 11. The specific issue under discussion is the mystery in 11:25 and the function of this verse in the larger argumentative context. I won’t waste space with further explanations. I’ll just give you the quotation.

“It thus appears that there are no scriptural passages which reveal this information. The reason is that it is something new, belonging to Christian revelation; Paul himself is the one that reveals this mystery (vv. 25b-26a), explaining that the hardening that has come upon a part of Israel will last until the incoming fullness of the nations, and so all Israel will be saved…Since it is something new, the mystery in 11,25b-26a is not contained as such in the (OT) Scriptures. The mystery itself goes beyond the Scriptures (but not against them), and indeed, the Scriptures can be re-read in light of the revealed mystery. As a result of the mystery, therefore, the proofs in Paul’s argument necessarily have to change…The proofs are no longer based on Scripture, nor can then be. This shift is often misunderstood by scholars…It is helpful to emphasize this point because it shows a limit in how Paul uses the Scriptures. We see here that Paul does not automatically cite Scripture to prove whatever point he wants to make, but rather that he respects the content of what is revealed in the Scriptures and realizes that in this case the issue at stake goes beyond them” (209-13).


Oh, and stay in touch; in the coming days I'll post a few pics of me and Bultmann in Marburg. We celebrated his birthday together.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Rusty Reno on Duke

Theologian Rusty Reno has, once again, offered his "crude and impressionistic" musings on what he takes to be the best graduate programs in theology, opining that Duke's program is the best, followed by Notre Dame.

While his claims are sure to ruffle feathers, perhaps especially at Duke, I thought readers of this blog might be interested in what he says about biblical studies at Duke:

There is a further reason why Duke is a remarkable place. In the mid-twentieth
century, Karl Rahner pronounced the Bible off limits for theologians. Systematic
theologians, he argued, should not presume upon the domain of properly
“scientific” historical exegesis. To my mind, this untenable divide between
theology and biblical interpretation has crippled both systematic and biblical
theology. Duke’s program works against this divide. Richard Hays, Kavin Rowe,
Stephen Chapman, and Ellen Davis are biblical scholars who can (and want) to
talk to students about Augustine, Aquinas, the Reformers, Karl Barth, and even
Karl Rahner. Moreover, Stanley Hauerwas has written a biblical commentary, and
Reinhard Hütter and Paul Griffiths are working on commentaries as well. Duke is
the ground zero for a restoration of theology to biblical exegesis, and biblical
exegesis to theology.

Feel free to raise objections!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

BC/AD vs. BCE/CE: Pitre + Wrong = Right

[Correction: Michael Barber was not the author of the post over at the Sacred Page - it was Brant Pitre! Whoops. Apologies to both.]

Robert Cargill's article in The Bible and Interpretation has triggered discussion on whether one should use BC/AD or BCE/CE, as Cargill argues.

Brant Pitre offers what I take to be an insightful criticism of the BCE/CE label:

The primary reason is that "B.C.E." and "C.E." are vacuous: they don't mean
anything. What actually is the "common era"? Can anyone actually tell me what is
"common" about the years 1-the present? And what was it that happened "before
the common era" so as to make it, well, 'un-common'?
It seems to mean the terminological shift is nothing but a rather facile attempt to take a dating
system which clearly places the Incarnation at the center of human history and
secularize it. But the attempt ultimately fails, since whether you use
B.C.E/C.E. or B.C./A.D., the Incarnation is still at the center of the system.
There's no other identifiable historical event that marks the transition from
one age to the other, whatever one concludes about the chronological controversy
regarding exact calendar date of Jesus' birth.

Pitre goes on to add: "If others find this confession of faith in the Incarnation offensive, then it seems to me that the consistent thing to do would be to create entirely different system, a secular system of dating that is based on some other event--rather than cloaking a Christocentric calendar in secular clothes."

Interestingly, N.T. Wrong makes a similar argument (as cited by Mark Goodacre):

By using ‘C.E.’ and B.C.E.’, we universalize a peculiar tradition. We make it
out to be ‘common’ or ‘natural’, not requiring any special marking or
qualification. As a consequence of the fact of Western power, the Gregorian
calendar has been adopted as the most-used calendar in the world, and so does
have some degree of ‘commonality’ in day-to-day use. But the change from A.D. to
C.E. (and from B.C. to B.C.E.) obscures the particular Christian basis of this
‘common’ calendar, misrepresenting it as ‘normal’ - as somehow transcending
historical particularities. By contrast, the other calendars are made out to be
the only ‘localized’ and ‘particular’ calendars. While the Christian calendar is
‘naturalized’ by its designation as ‘common’, other calendars (Jewish, Persian,
Islamic, Chinese, Hindu, Ethiopian, Thai, etc) are ‘artificial’ and
‘contingent’.Stop this neo-colonialism! Use A.D. and B.C. again!! The specific
marking of these older terms, which refers to the Christian concept of ‘Christ’,
may well be offensive to some people. But this offence is substantial and
systemic, not removeable by changing the name of the year which is dated from
the birth of Christ. The hegemony of the Western calendar is a fact, and just
one of the many effects of Western power in the world today — a minor but not
insignificant fact, given the universal importance of local calendars in shaping
culture. To obscure the Western calendar’s particularity by making it into a
false universal is a double injustice – both the initial violence of changing
local calendars, and then its covering up with the misleading term “common”.
This is ideology at work.

What does all this mean? I think I just proved that Brant Pitre is N. T. Wrong.

Prospects for Newly Minted Ph.D.s

Duke today just had its "Teaching and Learning Lunch" for students in the Graduate Program in Religion, with panel consisting of a provost, a dean, and a former head of an academic society. The topic was job prospects in religion and the humanities. I took away the following points:

  • No doubt about it, the humanities job market will be soft for a long time.
  • Economic pressures affect different schools differently. Particularly, the mix of funding sources (endowments, tuition, etc.) will have different effects in a tight economy.
  • The erosion in the jobs is mainly from the bottom. Weaker candidates are more at risk than ever before.
  • The weaker schools are also being hit harder. Fewer job openings there.
  • The top research schools may be less harder hit, but they will be as competitive as always (perhaps even more so).
  • Second and third private colleges are finding that tuition payers want more prestige from their bucks and are therefore facing a loss in enrollments.
  • On the other hand, public universities are faced with shortfalls from the state legislators. They are having to raise their tuitions, which may end up making the second and third tier colleges less uncompetitive price-wise for students.
  • The age of (over-)specialization may be over. Candidates should show that they can both research and teach in a broader range of subjects.
  • The religion faculty in most schools is tiny, 4-7 professors. Breadth of teaching subjects is important for such schools.
  • Ethics is hot now. Professors in religion should figure how to tie their teaching into ethics.
  • Those getting narrow doctorates from U.K. programs may be at a disadvantage compared to those graduating from American programs due to the their coursework requirements.
  • As schools squeeze administrative positions, new hires may be asked to take on more administrative responsibility than before.
  • Catholic colleges may represent some of the best opportunities for theological faculty in terms of openings. At many of these schools, religion courses are still required and their facing a spate of retirements among the teaching priests.
  • As for Protestant affiliated colleges, mainline denominational schools are shrinking in their enrollments, but evangelical schools seem to be more vibrant.