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“Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary,” Three Months in.

Putting together Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student’s Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament was NOT fun. Like Santa, I spent a summer making lists and checking them twice—and then three and four times, and then a fifth time for good measure.

Since this debutante came to the ball (Amazon) three months ago, then, it’s been satisfying to watch her woo the suitors (reviewers). One professor in my program, known for not being easily satisfied, raved to me about how well put-together the resource is. I used it myself when writing a paper on gendered imagery in the Song of Songs. That paper won a departmental award!

Zondervan was generous in sending out several review copies to known biblio-bloggers. The first to take the bait, Jacob Cerone, writes:

My only complaint about the guide is that I didn’t have it at my disposal almost a decade ago when I started learning Hebrew.

Then John Kight at Sojourner Theology:

Pleins has done a great service to students of the Old Testament and I sense that his approach will be utilized more broadly in the coming years. … I couldn’t recommend it more highly!

Lastly, prolific blogger Phil Long at Reading Acts put up his review:

This is a fascinating resource for anyone who has already acquired the basic vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible … The book is both a unique and useful reference for students of the Hebrew Bible.

Phil has over 3,000 subscribers—this was a big endorsement. When he posted his review, I watched the book’s Amazon Best Sellers Rank spike upwards from the 300,000s to the 42,000s over the next few days! Thanks, Phil!

Still, at times I explain the book and I get a quizzical look: so what? What’s the purpose? How can it deepen exegesis?

Answering this question, I’ve prepared a series of blog posts on how to use the book to deepen studies of biblical imagery, historical linguistics, and archaeology. They’ll be starting soon over at the LAB—The Logos Academic Blog. I’ll be linking to them here when they start.

“Art Interpreting Scripture” catalog just released!

In the two years I’ve worked with The Saint John’s Bible, Heritage Edition at Santa Clara University Archives & Special Collections, I’ve noticed some of the conversations it begins about art, faith, Scripture, and the imagination.

So for the current exhibit in our gallery space, I was asked to put together some of these materials. At the same time, we were offered CIVA’s traveling exhibit of the works of Japanese Christian printmaker Sadao Watanabe.

The result is Art Interpreting Scripture: Characters in and Creators of the BibleAnd the catalog just came in!

We’ve divided the exhibit in two sides: the Characters side, and the Creators side.

On the Characters side, we’ve paired Donald Jackson’s work from The Saint John’s Bible, Barry’s Moser’s woodcuts from The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, and Sadao Watanabe’s washi prints. Here’s their three very different takes on the crucifixion.

Jackson is all gold, grace, the glorified God.

Moser is the suffering Jesus, warts and all, stark darkness.

 

I think of Watanabe somewhere in the middle. His Jesus wears a kimono. Inculturation is a big part of his aesthetic.

The Characters side of the exhibit enabled us to incorporate The Saint John’s Bible with the Watanabe prints.

For the Creators side, we focused on our Special Collections books, looking at how the book as an art form mediates visual interpretation of the Scriptures.

When you walk in the exhibit, this is the first case you see:

The lower book is the Mission Santa Clara Choirbook. Santa Clara University is on the site of Mission Santa Clara, one of the Franciscan missions. When the Jesuits got the land in 1851, this book was part of the mission library they inherited. It’s one of our best sources on liturgical music in the California Missions. It’s also bigheavy. The cover is metal plated. The pages are vellum—animal skin.

I opened the choirbook to a liturgical selection containing some Psalms in Latin. Pair this with The Saint John’s Bible Book of Psalms, which opens with a two-page illumination containing symbols of church and synagogue. Some of these symbols are specific to Saint John’s Abbey, who sponsored this Bible.

The Psalms are prayed in church and synagogue. They are prayed at Saint John’s Abbey by the Benedictine monks in their Daily Office and their daily lives. They were, and still are, prayed at Mission Santa Clara.

Every book tells a story. These books of Psalms tell the stories of the communities that created them and used them for their piety and devotion. In an age of hypertext and iPad reading, sometimes we forget the importance of the materiality the book.

Enough preview. If you get a chance, do come by and see the gallery exhibit!

Why I’ve Been So Silent Lately.

…. At least on this blog, that is. In real life, silence is not one of my virtues.

June has been a wild month.

On June 13, Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories was released. Zondervan sent 50 copies to “influencers” around the country — people who teach Biblical Hebrew at universities and seminaries. 10 copies went to academic journals for review. Several more went to bloggers. One professor has already told us he will assign the book for his second-year Hebrew students. We got positive feedback from Michael Halcomb, known for his work in ancient Greek pedagogy.

For several days, we have been, on and off, ranked the #1 New Release in “Christian Bible Language Studies.” Surely many New York Times bestsellers come from that genre. We even briefly hit the 21,000s in the Amazon Best Sellers ranking.

We also got our first public review from biblioblogger Jacob Cerone. He writes:

My only complaint about the guide  is that I didn’t have it at my disposal almost a decade ago when I started learning Hebrew.

Right now, I am devising a virtual book tour, here and on some blogs of friends in the Bible world.

The book came out on a Tuesday. On Saturday, my wife graduated from college—Santa Clara University—with an honors degree in History and Spanish. She won the coveted Redwood Prize in the history department for a paper on Jews’ legal rights (and lack thereof) in the early American Republic.

The next day, we flew out to Florida so I could teach a class on The Saint John’s Bible for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine. Essentially I ran through my book material with them. They were an incredibly thoughtful and talkative group, which made my job easy as they got into great discussions on the art. More on that to come.

Peace!

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!

(Belated) State of the Projects: March 2016.

The last two months have been productive in my scholarly life. At least that’s my excuse for not blogging!

First, I’ve been seeing some very nice rewards for the work I have done. The print copies of my first two academic articles came in. It’s very satisfying to see my name in print (yay!). Also, I’ve gotten some good (I think) writing out on other blogs: a post about Star Wars on Sacred Matters, and a post on Christian-Muslim dialogue and apologetics at Christian Apologetics Alliance.

One of the benefits of blogging for me is learning to make points clearly and concisely. Let me tell you: some academics couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag. I’m talking five-clause sentences with parenthetical asides. One-clause sentences are nice. It also teaches me to not expect written perfection. Save that for a book. A blog post is meant to be ephemeral.

Second, speaking of books, my effort to get the writings of my Jesuit friend, the late George Kennard, is coming to an end. George always told me he wanted me to finish his book. Always nice when a friend gives you an impossible task. The book being published is not the magnum opus of cognitive science, linguistics, epistemology, and Vatican II that he wanted to write, but a selection of sermons, speeches, articles, and biographical writings. I’m awaiting the printers’ proof now.

Third, last month, I went to a conference in Michigan to discuss my pet project, The Saint John’s Bible. I looked at some of the Gospels illuminations in the light of Jewish-Christian dialogue. I wrote about my experience at the conference for the blog of the Center for Arts, Religion, and Education (CARE) at my home school, the GTU. It was everything one could want in a conference: great company, great talks, left feeling energized.

I gave my talk again for CARE on Friday. Eight people came, including three of my friends. With the feedback from Michigan fresh in my mind, I did a lot of work to revise my paper. I think it went well.

This conference convinced me of one major thing. I had thought of my work with The Saint John’s Bible as a side project to my real interest in scripture and interreligious dialogue. This conference knocked me out of that mindset. At several of the talks, I noticed things that the speaker didn’t notice—mainly because none of the other speakers had the opportunity to show this Bible to hundreds of people. Showing this Bible has helped me see how the symbols and motifs repeat, how this Bible creates a fresh visual lexicon in biblical art.

Fourthclasses at the Graduate Theological Union are going well. I am taking Race and Ethnicity in the New Testament, a seminar on Jeremiah, Christian Iconography, a reading course on Surat al-Baqara (Surah 2), the longest surah in the Qur’an, and a seminar on papyrology (how to read, work with ancient papyri) at Cal.

All the madness of conferencing out of the way, I can now focus on class again. And most of all, of course, focus on my wife. We just celebrated six months. 🙂

Recommended Reading, 1.26.16.

Because of my intensive intersession course — which I will blog about soon! — and getting the flu, I fell way behind on my blog reading. Here are some of the posts that captivated my attention the most from the last few weeks.

Not to be too self-promotional, but you should totally check out a post I wrote for a friend’s apologetics site on the connection between apologetics and interfaith dialogue:

Nabeel Qureshi, Christian Apologist – and Bridge Between Christians and Muslims?

Because both religions emphasize sharing their faith, a true bridge between Christians and Muslims would also be a bridge between dialogue and apologetics. This bridge would have to be built on the twin pillars of shared similarities and respectfully acknowledged differences. In my experience, interfaith dialogue emphasizes similarities, and often lacks the courage to discuss differences.  Similarities are important, for love can emerge from an understanding of our common humanity. But at its worst, the result of exploring only commonalities is a bland Kumbaya feeling. On the other hand, too often I have read works of apologetics that only discuss differences. These apologists fail to recognize the common ground of love and compassion across religions and cultures, and that do not seem to be written from places of love and friendship for their religious rivals.

(Thanks to CAA for publishing my post!)

“There is No Rejoicing Without Wine”: Jesus’ First Miracle at Words on the Word

And did you catch this nice touch from John: these jars, where the chemical miracle happened, were ones “used… for ceremonial washing.” There’s nothing wrong with religious ritual, per se—I quite like it myself. But these jars for ritual cleansing—Jesus turned them into party favors. That’s kind of like co-opting the baptismal font for a punch bowl.

Religion Snapshots: Methodological Atheism vs. Methodological Agnosticism at Religion Bulletin

This short debate about methodology in the study of religion intrigued me. I come upon this issue in my studies, i.e., when people ask why early Christianity took off. One answer: because Jesus resurrected. Another question: is there such a thing as genuine prophecy, in the sense of seeing into the future? Both cannot be ruled out, but they are outside the bounds of what methodological atheism and agnosticism would allow. The question of how human we are willing to make our sacred texts is an ongoing one for me.

The Problems with Post-Modern Interpretation of the Bible at Bible and Culture

A Biblical text without its original historical, rhetorical, social, literary, archaeological texts becomes a pretext for whatever you want it to mean, and this is not a good thing, it’s a bad thing. Nor is the meaning of a text merely ‘a matter of my opinion’ vs. yours. Why not? Because there is an actual meaning in those Biblical texts which can only be discerned with a combination of careful exegesis attending to the various original contexts and prayerful reflection with the guidance of God’s Spirit.

THE REBEL VIRGINS AND DESERT MOTHERS WHO HAVE BEEN WRITTEN OUT OF CHRISTIANITY’S EARLY HISTORY at Altas Obscura

Really interesting article, reminds me of some of the stuff we read in my Gender in Early Christianity course. One thing — she misses the fact that some of these early female saints were “transgender saints,” i.e. their asceticism was so harsh that they lost all physical traces of femininity, an apt symbol for their psychological denial of femininity. Not sure we can call these women feminist Christian icons.

Levine and Meier on the Parables of Jesus: Two Very Important (and Very Different) New Books at The Jesus Blog

“REMEMBRANCE OF DEATH” CAN OVERCOME “DEATH OBSESSION” at First Things

My friend, author and preeminent American Orthodox apologist Frederica Matthewes-Green, considers the remembrance of death as one of the most helpful disciplines in living a healthy Christian life. She told me, “If you spend your life seeking entertainment and food, trying to keep your mind occupied and amused, you find yourself weary and depressed. Life can come to seem meaningless.” There is a better way than these desperate efforts to delay, deflect, and control our mortal fate. It is to accept it, to ponder and embrace it, and witness a paradoxical result: “Keeping in the back of your mind an awareness of the fact that you will die one day leads to a life lived deliberately, with forethought and gratitude, a life that is worthy and complete.”

Think the Muslim world needs to “reform?” Think again by Connor Wood

Fundamentalism – the inflexible adherence to literal, text-based religious teachings, whether Biblical creationism or Shariah law – often results from reform movements, rather than being banished by them. One reason for this is that religious reformations, by stripping away supposedly outdated or extraneous traditions and rituals in favor of a “return to basics,” can end up pushing their host religions towards a rigid, text-based literalism. Sounds like just what the world needs, right?

The secular front in the US by John Fea

Not sure I agree with him, but thought-provoking.

Yet, despite the demographic power of evangelicals, they are largely marginalised from the media and education. The writer Jay Nordlinger might be correct when he says that ‘all conservatives are bilingual – we have to be. (We speak liberal and conservative.) But liberals tend to be monolingual – they don’t need to speak our languages, or to know much about us at all.’ Indeed, if you are a secular progressive or liberal secularist, it is possible to live in a society that comports to your world view. If you are an evangelical Christian, it is not that easy.

Jesus for Muslims – A Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Irelan at Patheos

I really enjoyed reading this homily — preached in my own city, no less! Irelan went in really deep and definitely did her homework when it came to Islam and thinking through how Christians can relate to Muslims.