Pedagogy is Philosophy — or, why the medium is the message.

In doing interfaith dialogue—or more broadly, in exposing yourself to different religious communities more broadly—one of the important competencies is not just understanding other religions, but also understanding some of the dynamics of how religious communities function. These dynamics are not specific to any one religion but recur in many different communities.

One dynamic that has been on my mind late relates to how pedagogy is theology— and how different pedagogies create very different kinds of scholars. Sometimes we think of pedagogy as something incidental, less key than the “real” knowledge, more an instrument to the end of creating knowledge than a meaningful part of that end. Instead, I would argue that pedagogy conveys its own ethos. The medium is the message — especially in teaching a religion.

This has been on my mind a great deal because of my Islamic Law class this semester. The professor did advanced work in Islamic Law at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and is now doing a PhD in the subject in a Western “Islamic Studies” setting. The questions asked, the methods used, the scholars consulted differ quite a bit. He tells us that the shift from one system to another has not been easy.

What is this shift? I’ll give a few examples.

In my MA studies in Bible at the Graduate Theological Union, most of my coursework focuses around methodology. To give a few examples of courses I have taken: Race and Ethnicity in the New Testament; Literary Criticism and the Old Testament; Historical Linguistics of Biblical Hebrew. The coursework revolves around learning how to use various scholarly methods, rather than on just reading texts. The classes are seminars with lots of discussion, stressing the students’ ability to creatively use the methods. If I continue my studies and get a PhD in Biblical Studies (inshallah!), the main hurdle I must pass is writing a dissertation, which proves that I can do original work, that I can be creative. Yes, there are comprehensive exams that demonstrate your knowledge of the tradition of scholarship that came before you. Yes, part of the evaluation of the PhD is how well you understand what other scholars have said about a topic. But you show your understanding of those scholars through critiquing them. A significant part of writing a doctoral thesis involves finding something new to say in a scholarly conversation. You have to kill your idols at a certain point.

This system produces scholars who are creative and rigorous. However, you can legitimately get a PhD in Biblical Studies without having read the whole Bible — even in English. Heck, I know New Testament scholars who haven’t read the whole New Testament in Greek. One might suggest that rigor in one area might come at the expense of another.

By contrast, some years ago I spent a summer studying at the Center for Buddhist Studies at Rangjung Yeshe Monastery in Kathmandu. The program was part Western-style comparative religion, part Tibetan-style monastic education. The latter classes involved reading a set text, a primer of Vajrayana practice titled The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Class time consisted of the teacher commenting on this text line-by-line, explicating its every meaning in great depth. If I remember correct, the didactic poem had roughly 40 four-line stanzas. We spent weeks going through it. Of course, there was time for question and answer, but we did not engage in the kind of free-flowing discussion that I have in my graduate seminars at the GTU.

Tibetan Buddhist monastic culture, like the Western academy, has its own gradations of study and hard-earned titles: lopon, lama, khenpo, etc. One who has advanced far in this education system has spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours intensively studying texts, their languages, their explication and exegesis.

While there is of course creativity and diversity in Tibetan Buddhist thought, as I understand it, the scholarly degrees focus more on whether or not one can faithfully pass on the tradition. Similarly, as I understand it, traditional Islamic madrasas have the same ethos. This might produce a conservative scholarly culture. But you can bet these scholars know all the texts inside and out, in a way that someone with a PhD in Buddhist Studies or Islamic Studies from a Western secular university simply won’t.

In both of these cases, the curriculum reflects the practice of the scholarly community: is a scholar’s job to creatively critique and rethink the tradition, or is it to faithfully pass on the tradition? Every religious community has to rethink these questions anew in every generation. But the intellectual leaders of the tradition are themselves formed to follow a balance of creativity and faithfulness by their own education—in its content, its delivery, and its criteria for assessing them as scholars.

Understanding this has helped me better appreciate my more conservative Christian friends. The curriculum at a liberal Protestant seminary and at a conservative Protestant seminary reflect the same differences as above. What examples of this do you see in your tradition?

On Submitting My First Paper to SBL.

For graduate students in biblical studies, presenting at the national Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) meeting is a rite of passage. I have just submitted my first proposal. Needless to say, I am nervous!

The SBL meeting every November is actually part of a smorgasbord of people who study religion. The SBL meets concurrently with the American Academy of Religion, the premier organization for those who study religion: Buddhist Studies, Islamic Studies, sociology of religion, etc. These two Goliaths established, an army of smaller organizations swarm in at the same time, with much more specific titles like the “Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies” and the “International Qur’anic Studies Association.”

And even within the SBL there is a HUGE range of different types of scholars: historians, social-scientists, literary scholars, theologians, archaeologists, postcolonial interpreters…. the list goes on. This is my favorite part of biblical studies. We are defined by subject, not method, so the number of perspectives on anything is quite vast.

My proposal is called “Jesus in the Garden Temple: Intertextuality and Visual Exegesis of the Song of Songs in The Saint John’s Bible.” I look at the Song of Songs in this Bible; show how its illuminations create connections between the Song, symbolism of Solomon’s Temple, and Jesus in the Gospels; and then speculate on what those connections mean.

As readers of this blog well know I have been working on this particular work of biblical art for some time now. I am very excited to spread the word about this project to other scholars looking at the intersection of the Bible and art. This paper is a spinoff from my book project, looking at the intersection of intertextuality and theology in The Saint John’s Bible.

I should hear back by early April to see if I got in. If I succeed then I will share more information here.


What is it like finagling a book contract?

Recently, I was offered a contract from Liturgical Press to write a book on The Saint John’s Bible. If you’re not familiar with the project, this video is a good place to start:

The book is tentatively titled Canonical Conversations. In brief: I am looking at some of the repeated symbolism of the artwork in The Saint John’s Bible, how it connections different parts of the Bible (“intertextuality”), and how those connections reflect a few contemporary issues in Catholic biblical interpretation.

As anyone who has written an academic book can tell you, the process of getting a contract can take months. So I am delighted I got the contract. Now, of course, I have to actually write the book!

What have I learned so far about getting a contract?

First, you don’t need to have the whole book written. This surprised me. For those who don’t know, it is very common to receive a contract to publish academic non-fiction with only one chapter. I sent in one chapter, an introduction, and an outline of the whole volume. (Bart Ehrman says he is on a perpetual cycle to publish one general audience scholarly book every two years with HarperOne. Most academics are not such productive public scholars!) My mentor and co-author on my first book, David Pleins, told me that he always gets a contract before writing the whole book. You don’t want to write a book nobody will publish, or revise ad nauseum to make it fit what a publisher wants.

Second, trust in others to help you articulate what you are doing. My thoughts on The Saint John’s Bible have deepened in the last year as I continue to speak about the project, especially with those who are also immersed in it. My own chronology:

June 2015: My workplace has a copy of the Heritage Edition, a high-quality ‘facsimile’ of the original. I was assigned the task of educating myself on it to show it to classes and community groups. In the course of my work, I started noticing things about the art that nobody had written about—particularly connections between different illuminations and how that reveals the way art exegetes Scripture.

February 2016: I gave my first paper on the project, “Illuminating Abraham: The Saint John’s Bible and Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” at the Illuminating Words, Transforming Beauty conference at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. I also met Michael Patella, one of the main scholars behind The Saint John’s Bible, who encouraged me to write something on it. At the time my idea was to do an iconographic “field guide” of sorts, researching each symbol used in this Bible. (I have since discarded that tedious idea!)

August 2016: For the Catholic Biblical Association meeting—which just happened to be at my university—I presented a paper, “Visualizing Feminist Exegesis: Revelation 12 in The Saint John’s Bible.” At the CBA I spoke with Hans Christoffersen, one of the head editors at Liturgical Press, about the possibility of writing a book. Surprisingly, Liturgical had nothing in the works on the subject. Hans told me to send him a proposal when the time was right.

Third, it requires patience. In October 2016, I sent my formal proposal to Hans. From here things basically went the way Michael Hyatt describes. Hans liked the proposal; he showed it to the editorial committee and they liked it; he showed it to the publishing board and it got through; and then Hans had to make the financial projections work.

It is nerve-wracking to wait to hear about whether or not the publisher likes your idea! As Rachelle Gardner points out, publishers can seem very slow, when in fact they are often crazy busy juggling several projects at different levels of development and keeping to strict schedules. Far from some of the horror stories I have heard, my editors at Zondervan and Liturgical have been responsive and enthusiastic. This might be one of the perks of writing trade non-fiction where the editor hopes to turn a profit, rather than just sell a few hundred copies to the same university libraries that buy everything else they publish.

For me, the financial projections step was difficult because the book has to be printed in full-color, glossy paper for the images, hence higher production costs. I have heard that finagling that kind of printing can be hard. I am glad I am writing on something near and dear to Liturgical Press’s heart! (The press is affiliated with the monks who commissioned The Saint John’s Bible.) Finally, on February 1, 2017, I was formally offered a contract.

Now, my manuscript is due on August 1, 2017. From what David has told me, publishers really, really like it when you stick to deadlines. You don’t want to be known as someone who is a pain to work with. This contrasts with other activities in academia that are known for being painfully slow, aka academic journals.

Fourth, be humble, but don’t underestimate yourself either. As a graduate student, there is often a nagging voice of doubt in the back of my head: should I be writing a book? Shouldn’t I follow the proper order: do my doctorate, publish it as a book, then branch out into a second book?

When I was getting married, several people told my 21-year-old fiance that she should wait until she finished college to get married. It’s the proper order of things, they said. She asked: why? They never had a good answer.

If you have found a question that intrigues you, and if others whose judgment you trust think you have some good ideas, then why not move forward?

Update: Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary Coming out in June!

Last summer, when I spent countless hours poring over drafts and word lists for David Pleins’ and my book on Biblical Hebrew vocabulary, it was hard to imagine how satisfying the finished product would be. But just yesterday I received the final page proofs, and with the meticulous work Zondervan did on the formatting, it looks great. There is definitely a satisfying leap from a messy Word document on a screen to a clean printed PDF!

All that is fit to print.

David and I owe a big one to our editor at Zondervan, Nancy Erickson, who has pushed this along since the beginning. Recently they have moved the publishing date up from September to  June—in time for possible fall textbook adoption. They are marketing it pretty heavily, and some bibliobloggers should be receiving review copies!

If this looks like your idea of fun, you can preorder the book on Amazon!

Review: Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature, Richard A. Taylor

Taylor wrote Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook for Kregel’s Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series, which is designed for pastors, graduate students, and others interested in the proper steps of exegesis of biblical books. While the exegetical guidelines in this book are common to other similar books, such as Robert Chisholm’s From Exegesis to Exposition, Taylor adds the pedagogical value of focusing only on apocalyptic literature in the Old Testament, especially Daniel, Joel, Zechariah, Malachi, and Isaiah 24-27.

In the six chapters of this book, Taylor covers (1) the definition of apocalyptic literature, (2) major themes and features of the genre, (3) interpretive tools needed to properly make sense of the genre, (4) some guidelines for exegeting particular texts, (5) a step-by-step method for doing so, and (6) two examples of Old Testament apocalyptic exegesis from Daniel and Joel. He ends with an appendix looking at various theories of the origins of biblical apocalyptic literature.

I thought two features of this book were particularly useful. First, Taylor spends a lot of time explaining extrabiblical literature. He does so in chapter two, looking at extrabiblical Jewish literature from the Second Temple to flesh out the features of apocalyptic, and he does so in the appendix when he looks at possible ancient Near Eastern precedents for apocalyptic literature, from Canaanite to Hellenistic to Persian literature. Although Taylor does not dive into these origin theories very fully, he provides detailed citations for the interested reader to follow.

That leads me to the second excellent feature of this book: the extensive bibliographies. Throughout the book Taylor provides annotated bibliographies covering apocalyptic literature in general, commentaries on Daniel and the Book of the Twelve, and various Biblical Hebrew resources such as different grammar and lexica. (While Taylor provides useful information for the student of biblical languages, his book doesn’t assume only an audience that has such training.) Taylor’s book can help the reader build up her scholarly library.

Taylor does a good job of explaining how to preach this often-misinterpreted genre in historical context, and occasionally gives examples of exegesis more fit for AM radio than for scholars and preachers! I do wish he had engaged the history of interpretation more. In sum, this might be a useful textbook, though it is a bit dry for fun reading.

Kregel provided me with a free copy of this book in exchange for a review. To the best of my knowledge, this did not impact my review.

New Article Released at The Interfaith Observer!

My article on Jewish-Christian dialogue, “The Jewish Jesus in the California Desert: A Report from the Tabernacle Experience,” went live yesterday morning at The Interfaith Observer. Do check it out when you get a chance. Thanks to Paul Chaffee, the editor of TIO, for working with me and publishing it!

Interfaith Dialogue and Scriptures: Leading my Church’s “Bible-Qur’an Study.”

Since I am a grad student in Biblical Studies and interreligious dialogue, I recently volunteered my services to my church for adult formation. After a quick poll, our priest found that church members were most interested in two things: biblical studies and interreligious dialogue. Throwing the two together, the “Bible-Qur’an Study” was born. This month I have been leading a small group of people through examination of selected texts portraying shared characters in the Bible and the Qur’an. So far we have done Noah and Mary. In both cases people were perplexed and fascinated.

Now, I should be clear that I approach this with a certain level of respect and humility. Muslims in America are having a PR problem at the moment, to put it mildly! I try to be careful to not feed into whatever misconceptions people carry (consciously or not) about the religion and its adherents.

At the same time, the Qur’an does address itself as guidance for all humanity. In fact, it seems to specifically address Jews and Christians at many points, either by direct address (“O Children of Israel” in Surah 2) or by its repeated echoes and allusions to biblical tradition. So I see myself as merely responding to that address.

Furthermore, four evenings is enough time to only scratch the surface of the tip of the iceberg that is this sacred text. Muslims spend a lifetime pondering it, and they do so within a 1,400-year tradition of pondering it. We are reading small selections in translation.

So how do I get people into the Qur’an in four evenings? Biblical characters are a good place to start. It’s a feature of the Qur’an that Christians naturally find accessible and familiar. It’s also a way for us to return to our own Bible with new questions.

The class so far, in brief:

In the first class I introduced the Qur’an and gave some background on the Qur’anic notion of prophethood.

In the second class we looked at Mary in both traditions, focusing on the infancy narrative in Luke and the narratives of Mary in Surah Maryam (19) and Surah al-Imran (3). I argued that in both texts Mary is described prophetically, even if the religious traditions following those texts generally don’t focus on that reading. Given how many non-Muslims think of Islam as a uniformly patriarchal and gender-oppressive religion, I felt it was important to focus on a strong female figure in the text. (If I remember correctly, Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an.)

Next week we will look at Jesus. I don’t know what we are doing yet.

Two books that have been really helpful to me are John Kaltner’s Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers and Michael Lodahl’s Claiming Abraham: Reading the Bible and the Qur’an Side by Side. Both are written by Christians committed to dialogue with Islam, and both focus on shared characters and how each text portrays them differently. For an Islamic perspective on the Qur’an I have been using The Study Qur’an.

One of my firm beliefs is that interfaith dialogue must begin with some commonality, before we can engage the differences. One of the unfortunate casualties of our oppositional, argument-driven media (both mass media and social media) is that sense of meeting someone as a human and finding common ground. In reading Bible and Qur’an in parallel, we find common symbols, common figures, common theological problems, and, of course, common ground.

And perhaps we even find something of beauty. Beauty breaks down fear and invites dialogue and love. This is what I have found when showing The Saint John’s Bible; people who have uncomfortable associations with the Bible relish this Bible because of its beauty.

Hopefully in October we will host a speaker from Islamic Networks Group to give our congregation some background on Islam more generally. We as a parish wish to engage with one of our local mosques, to counter this time of division and hate in America. But for at least a few people from my church, their small glimpses into the Qur’an will have well prepared them to better appreciate and love the people who follow this text.


Review: Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew, Sue Groom

One of the great joys of working on the student’s handbook of Biblical Hebrew vocabulary this summer has been my entry into linguistics and biblical languages. I have long had a layperson’s interest in linguistics, and for me learning about nuances of historical change, sociolinguistics, and such has been one of the payoffs of learning biblical languages, a payoff I had to discover much on my own through authors such as Joel Hoffman and William Schniedewind. This past week I have also started working through

41H1K6GMXWL._SX299_BO1,204,203,200_However, though there are some great books introducing the layperson to linguistics and biblical interpretation, many seem to be more geared more to NT Greek: Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning, Campbell’s Advances in the Study of Biblical Greek, and so forth. So when I saw Sue Groom’s Linguistic Analysis of Biblical HebrewI ordered it on interlibrary loan right away. Groom’s book aims to introduce the linguistic tools that scholars have applied to the Hebrew Bible. However, though there were some useful chapters in this book, on the whole I found it somewhat of a disappointment.

The first hazard is the mention in the introduction that the book is based on Groom’s MA thesis. This is strange: theses and surveys tend to be very different genres. The second hazard is apparent in the table contents, which promises chapters on the corpus of ancient Hebrew, the development of the Masoretic text, the nature of Biblical Hebrew, ancient biblical translations, comparative philology, lexical semantics, and text linguistics. Hence, rather than orienting biblical studies students to the basic linguistic theories—e.g., syntax, phonology, morphology, etc.—she dives into current topics of discussion. And out of this 174-page book, the longest chapter (31 pages) is devoted to ancient translations that are better surveyed in a book on Old Testament textual criticism than in this book.

In the chapters that were the most useful, Groom glosses over the issues that perhaps need the most treatment. For example, her chapter on “The Nature of Biblical Hebrew” surveys discussions of diglossia, diachronic variation, and dialectical variation and geography—all in 14 pages. I found it hard to follow some of her discussions because she summarized complex arguments without sufficient examples. Still, I gained much from that chapter in particular, as well as her discussion of lexical semantics and comparative philology.

Perhaps the most useful part of her book is the conclusion, which integrates the many different methods she described in an analysis of selected terms in Judges 4. This really illustrated how one can use the biblical languages responsibly instead of in one of the exegetical fallacies so common in popular preaching.

So rather than recommending the entire book, I would recommend selected chapters, with the caveat that since this book was published in 2003 the scholarly discussions have certainly advanced. Overall, despite its usefulness, this book’s genesis as a thesis showed, since much of it felt like a literature review. For me, an ideal book of this kind might include a kind of workbook format, with examples to work through and questions for students to tackle.

That said, I just found out yesterday that I might be taking a seminar on historical linguistics and biblical Hebrew this fall, so I am sure to find out more about this area!

My new article on The Saint John’s Bible.

After some months of showing and admiring The Saint John’s Bible, some months ago I wondered if I could find any of Donald Jackson’s better work so I could connect it with this amazing illuminated Bible. I approached the people at Saint John’s University, the patron of The Saint John’s Bible, to see if they would be interested in a short piece for The Scribe, the newsletter of the project. My piece was published recently, and it looks good! (Read here.)

"Crucifixion" in Luke

“Crucifixion” in Luke

Now, Donald Jackson is a god in the English-language calligraphy world. First, for many decades he was (and may still be, for all I know) the official calligrapher for the Royal Crown. (He’s British.) Also, working with this Bible has gotten me in touch with some local calligraphers, including Cari Ferraro who herself wrote a piece on this Bible. Every calligrapher I have met speaks with Jackson with a certain awe. The man is a prodigy who started calligraphy formally at 13. Yet by all reports, he is also very down to earth and supportive of young talent.

Still, because he built his fame in the pre-internet age, he does not have a website. So I had a heck of a time finding any of his earlier work. The only thing I could find was a catalogue of a 1988 exhibition of his work called Painting With Words. (Coincidentally, both Cari and my calligraphy teacher saw the exhibit, which came to Santa Clara’s Triton Museum of Art.) Thankfully, this catalog has a few pieces that reminded me quite a bit of some of Jackson’s illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible.

I just posted my article on my Academia page—go read it if you are interested.