Category Archives: Uncategorized

What I’ve been up to lately: The Saint John’s Bible and Jewish-Christian Dialogue.

The GTU’s academic calendar does intersession, which means that apart from one week of crazy intersession madness, I have been off of school. I’ve been taking this time to prepare my conference paper for next month’s “Illuminating Words, Transforming Beauty” conference at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. Although my “guild” is biblical studies, I’m attending this Conference on Christianity and Literature conference because it has a special focus on the Saint John’s Bible. If you haven’t heard about the Saint John’s Bible, well, let me tell you – it’s a treat. And I get to show it as part of my work at SCU Archives and Special Collections.

Although there is much publicity on the project, there is very little analysis or critique of it. I basically read all of it – a few journal articles here and there. There are two books that go through each illumination and give some background, explain visual allusions, and meditate on them. These two books, one by Susan Sink and the other by Michael Patella, are very good. They focus on the intentions behind the art, what the artists and theologians creating this Bible meant. I use them all the time in figuring out what illuminations to show people.

What has not taken place yet is a thorough evaluation of this Bible and what it means as a milestone in contemporary biblical interpretation. We have the statements from the artists of what they think their art means – which is amazing considering we don’t have such documentation from all the famous medieval illuminated Bibles like the Book of Kells or the Winchester Bible. And while all biblical art – heck, every physical copy of Bible – is to some extent a theological interpretation, this Bible is especially so. The artists working on it were advised by a team of theologians and biblical scholars who sent them lengthy packets covering which passages to illuminate, current scholarship and prayerful reflection on those passages, and ideas on how to illuminate them.

But as of now, we have a lot of “wow!” and not much critique or analysis. As a graduate student in biblical studies and someone intimately familiar with this Bible from showing it to over 150 people in classes, churches, and community groups, I felt called to contribute to this analysis.

Frontispiece to Matthew: Matthew's Genealogy of Jesus. When I show the Saint John's Bible this is one of the "show-stopper" illuminations.

Frontispiece to Matthew: Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus. When I show the Saint John’s Bible this is one of the “show-stopper” illuminations.

Specifically, I am writing about New Testament illuminations in the light of Jewish-Christian dialogue. This Bible was created by Catholics – specifically Benedictines – and we have a boatload of ecclesial statements since Nostra Aetate laying out right relationship with Jews, theologians engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue, and parish-level work cultivating bonds between church and synagogue. (When I was Catholic, my church was right next door to a synagogue!) This has seeped into New Testament scholarship emphasizing the Jewish elements of Jesus, Paul, and the early Christian movement. (Think of the “New Perspective on Paul” and The Jewish Annotated New Testament).

So does the Saint John’s Bible reflect this new approach to Judaism? Is it an effective tool for dialogue between Jews and Christians? Do any of its illuminations still unwittingly reproduce Christian polemic against Jews?

Yes, yes, and yes. And that’s my paper in a nutshell.

This is my first major writing project since my two senior theses, and I’m refining how I’m working on it. Mainly (1) I’m trying to be more rooted in primary sources before I dive into the murky waters of scholarly commentary; (2) I am using Zotero which saves a LOT of time; and (3) I am writing much earlier in the project. Writing helps me think. After reading the primary sources and deciding which illuminations I want to use, I wrote a “draft 0” that just lays out the very broad outline. I’ve found it works better for me to write crap and revise it like crazy than to store thoughts in my head forever and write something perfect.

This project works well with how I think – very interdisciplinary. I’m bringing together New Testament scholarship, Jewish-Christian dialogue, particularly on liturgy and scripture, and work on art as biblical interpretation, or what Martin O’Kane calls “visual exegesis.”

Through it all, I’m trying to ask: How would a Jew steeped in scripture see these illuminations? Once I get this good enough to show to another human being, I will ask a few of my Jewish mentors. But until then I’m trying to imagine how it would feel for someone to tell me that their religion perfects and completes mine, and that I am, so to speak, only the beta test. Then I remembered, um, every conversation I’ve had with a Muslim friend about Jesus. That might be a bit similar.

My Silk Road paper is now online.

Well, good news!  You can read it for free at The Silk Road. (Scroll down the page a bit for a link to the PDF.)

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=292232

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=292232

I enjoyed working with Greek themes in Buddhist art for my senior thesis. I still have no idea how it might be relevant to my studies in New Testament and early Christianity, other than maybe the most general and broad theme of the Hellenization of non-Greeks and non-Greek religions in antiquity.

Thanks to Daniel Waugh for doing the laborious work of editing this journal, and for providing some images from his personal travels for my article!

My top 10 (or so) Books of 2015, and Goals for 2016.

 

Following Jacob Prahlow and Brian LePort‘s Top 10 lists, I figured I would post my own.  2015 was a good year for reading: 84 books total! Not bad, especially considering I got married, finished my BA, and started graduate school. An eventful year to say the least.

I like to divide my year’s top books into two categories: innovative books that opened new questions for me on topics I know little about, and influential books that are part of my scholarly interests and contribute to my development as a thinker.

 

Most Influential

  1. Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History by Mary Beard
    Beard’s book is a dense, magisterial survey, accompanied by a second volume that collects primary sources on Roman religions.  I particularly like how Beard reviews the sources on different aspects and time periods of Roman religion, to give an idea of where our evidence comes from and each source’s strengths and weaknesses.  She also gives a convincing argument that Roman religion prior in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE was not waning and falling away to make room for Christianity
  2. Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor by S. R. F. Price
    Price’s book is old (late 1970s), but he makes a convincing case that the imperial cult in Rome was not mere top-down political propaganda, but often an intimate part of peoples’ personal devotion.  His focus is on the Hellenistic era, making this particularly relevant for understanding early Christian language of kingship.
  3. Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective by Amina Wadud
    Wadud, a prominent American Muslim scholar and advocate for womens’ expanded role in Islamic leadership, argues that the Qur’an is not patriarchal, but has been interpreted so by centuries of male interpreters.  I ultimately disagree with her conclusion, but her prophetic tone really began a conversation over 20 years ago in this book, and she gave me a lot to think about.
  4. Jesus in the Talmud by Peter Schäfer
    Schafer’s book looks at Jesus’ depiction in the Talmud through the lens of anti-Christian polemic.  Before I took a course in rabbinic literature this fall, I had never studied Talmud, so this book was a fascinating entry-point into that world of scholarship.
  5. The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue by Catherine Cornille
    After staring at this book on my shelf for a couple of years, I finally read it for a class in Christian-Muslim Dialogue.  Cornille examines the role of virtue in interreligious dialogue and clarifies what aspects make up an ideal dialogue.
  6. The Bible and the Third World: Precolonial, Colonial and Postcolonial Encounters by R. S. Sugirtharajah
    This is my third book by “Sugi,” who always writes witty and intelligently.  Sugi is prominent in the field of postcolonial biblical interpretation, and gives me a lot of ideas on how to read scripture in an interreligious context.
  7. Understanding Other Religious Worlds: A Guide for Interreligious Education by Judith Berling
    Berling’s book describes how to guide people in to understanding other religions, as a balance between incorporating the students’ perspectives and engaging other religions on their own terms.  This pedagogical book is useful for anyone studying religion, whether in an interfaith context or a comparative religion context.
  8. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi
    Qureshi is a Muslim who converted to Christianity, and his book was a very interesting portrait of his (de)conversion and Christian arguments against Islam.  I really appreciated his tone of charity and kindness toward Muslims even though he disagrees with the central doctrines of their religion.
  9. The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew– Three Women Search for Understanding by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner
    This book, co-authored by three women (Muslim, Christian, and Jew), is an excellent model for what interfaith can look like on a local, personal, non-scholarly level.  Really enjoyed.
  10. Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Jon D. Levenson
    Levenson, a Hebrew Bible scholar, elucidates traditions about Abraham in all three Abrahamic faiths, then argues against the use of the word “Abrahamic” and contemporary efforts to make Abraham a symbol of commonality.  I like how he intelligent brings out major differences between the religions, and how Abraham is construed quite differently in all three.

Most Innovative

  1. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
    Like most prophets, Malcolm X sounds like someone who would have been very hard to get along with. But his autobiography was amazing, and really helped me understand a dimension of the Civil Rights movement that we didn’t learn as much about in school.
  2. The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy Seal by Eric Greitens
    After a top-notch Ivy League education and job offers from top aid organizations, Greitens joined the Navy Seals out of a conviction that protecting the vulnerable of the world through force was the best way to help others. I really admired this intelligent man’s reflections on how the heart and the fist must work together.
  3. Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Gail Steketee and Randy O. Frost
    Coming from a family of hoarders, the mental illness has always fascinated me. This book, co-authored by a social worker and a psychologist, really dives into the mindset of hoarding, and what works to fix the problem (hint: city clean-ups don’t do it).
  4. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill
    My wife loves this book, and I read it on our honeymoon. Cahill writes really well about Irish monks’ role in preserving classical texts at a time when classical civilization had fallen apart and the rest of Europe was in the “dark ages.”

Other Achievements in 2015:

  1. I got married!  This is surely the top item of the year.  I can’t even begin to describe how much my wife enhances and supports me in every area of my life.
  2. I got into graduate school and got the funding I needed to attend.
  3. I (re-)started my job at Santa Clara University Archives & Special Collections, and showed our edition of The Saint John’s Bible to several classes and community groups, growing my skills in teaching and deepening my appreciation of scripture.
  4. I finished my first research assistant job, helping my professor publish a critical edition of a scroll of the Book of the Twelve from Qumran.  I also began working as a proof-reader for Theological Studies.  This January I start another job, helping a professor put together a guidebook for students of Biblical Hebrew.
  5. I finished several diverse writing projects, including my first peer-reviewed article on Buddhist-Christian dual belonging, an article coming out soon derived from my senior thesis on Herakles in Buddhist art, an opinion piece at Religion Dispatches, and a book note forthcoming in Theological Studies.

Some thoughts:

  1. Life changes really took a bite out of my reading productivity for the year. I got married at the end of August, and for the weeks leading up to the big day, I got very little reading done!
  2. Graduate school actually lowered my reading productivity. Professors like to assign articles and book chapters, neither of which count toward book reading.
  3. Similarly, language classes also don’t count. For example, in the spring I took a Greek reading course in the Iliad. Obviously, we didn’t finish it in Greek in 10 weeks, and by mere quantity of text we actually moved very slowly compared to if we had read the epic in English.

Goals for 2016:

  1. Rather than aim for another 100-book quota that I know I won’t meet without reading lots of fluff, my goal for 2016 is to read one major work in my academic field each month — and give it a long, thoughtful review.
  2. I would like to join Jennifer Guo in reading the entire Greek New Testament in 2016, following Wallace’s reading plan.
  3. I would like to finish my Biblical Studies Reading Challenge.
  4. As for blogging, I would like to submit a substantive post to the Biblical Studies Carnival every month.

In Praise of Failure: Is Defining Religion Such a Good Idea?

Recently, the New York Times’ religion writer appeared to throw up his hands in despair at trying to fix on a definition of religion—since the word seemed to cover everything from Pope Francis’ latest encyclical to CrossFit. As Mark Oppenheimer exasperatedly wrote, “If everything is rel

Source: In Praise of Failure: Is Defining Religion Such a Good Idea?

New writings!

Hope everyone’s Christmas was full of merriment and good cheer.

My Christmas present was seeing my first peer-reviewed article published: “Spiritually Bilingual: Buddhist Christians and the Process of Dual Religious Belonging.” This article dates back to my community college days when I first did interviews of self-proclaimed “dual belongers” to better understand their conversion processes. Ultimately I compare the process of conversion to a second religious tradition to being bilingual. Buddhist-Christians are like Spanglish speakers. The article is on MUSE, but I’ve also put up a freely accessible version on my academic.edu page.

Also, in the midst of the madness of school I neglected to note this. But I wrote a brief editorial in November on my experience attending the only public high school district in the country requiring a world religions course to graduate. It is published at Religion Dispatches: If Modesto’s Public Schools Can Teach World Religions, It Can Happen Anywhere.

I also just yesterday got the proofs for the article I’m publishing based on my senior thesis, on Heraklean iconography in Buddhist art.

I have several writing projects to juggle over break, including some book reviews for journals and preparation for a paper I am giving in February (and again in March). There’s nothing like the pressure of a deadline to get creative juices flowing!

Potatoes, Dessert, and Grad School.

One of the greatest things about studying at the Graduate Theological Union is how many different types of students there are with different goals, different perspectives, different interests. In my epigraphy class, for example, there is a Catholic priest, a Franciscan nun doing a doctorate in Hebrew Bible, an Ancient Near East scholar who works in several Semitic languages, and a retired community college professor who studies biblical languages as a hobby. Oh, and me, a biblical studies MA student passionate about interreligious dialogue.

After class a few weeks ago, a group of us were talking about the direction of the field, the divide between scholars working in the technical aspects of biblical studies (paleography, philology, text criticism, etc.) and those concerned with how we read the scriptures today. Of course, any decent scholar should be concerned with and competent in both. Any scholar doing the “what does it mean for us today?” work should know the text criticism, the language, etc. (Larry Hurtado has argued this better than I can, so I’ll link to him.) As one of my fellow student’s adviser put it, “You can’t have your dessert until you’ve eaten your potatoes.”

But I’m really not sure where I fall on this spectrum. When I applied to my graduate program, my application essay described my goal as being a bridge between antiquarians and activists. At the end of my first semester, I am still that bridge, but I am feeling more vividly the difficulty and the possibility inherent in being that bridge. I have one foot in each camp, but am not rooted fully in either camp.

For example, I really enjoy my “potatoes” courses. This semester it was Hebrew epigraphy, which I jokingly told my friends and family was the most arcane thing I have ever studied. I genuinely enjoy linguistics, text-criticism, etc.  I’m good at it too.  But I can’t see it being my specialty for life at this point in time.

Looking at what I have researched in the past, and what I get really enthused about for presenting and writing, I see mostly “dessert” topics. Right now, for example, I am preparing a paper for a conference in February on the Saint John’s Bible and Jewish-Christian dialogue. I’m applied to present on the relation between dialogue and apologetics for a graduate symposium next May. This is not typical biblical studies stuff.

But when I’m in a group of dialogue people, I tend to be the one frustrated with banal generalities about scriptures. I want to know: which manuscripts? What’s the verb form there?  So I go back and forth.

When I apply to Ph.D. programs in two years, I will be applying to biblical studies programs, God willing. There are great programs like Boston or Georgetown that focus on comparative theology, religious pluralism, and interreligious dialogue. But I don’t want to be a dialogue person who dabbles in Bible. I want to be a biblical scholar who engages in dialogue. I want to be seen as intentional and interdisciplinary, not eclectic and unfocused. By focusing coursework on meat and potatoes but writing (here and elsewhere) about dialogue, I hope I can pull it off. I hope that those two – the potatoes and dessert, the antiquarian and activist – can go together.

That attempt will probably be the greater focus of this blog in the future. I originally started this blog as a way to talk about ancient languages. But as a grad student doing Bible and Qur’an, my language requirements are enough that I don’t have time to do them as a hobby as well. I’m keeping the blog’s name but will reorganize the menu to reflect this new direction.

Engaging the Word, Part Two.

Like most Christians and people of faith, I have several stories of failed attempts to make prayer a regular part of my day. I remember one resolution, when I was 19, to get up at 5 am every day and read my Bible. What was I thinking? Now, at 25, I feel too old for such a rigorous schedule.

But I find that often if I just aim myself in the right direction, a structure for my life will emerge, and I will organically become the person I want to be rather. This tend to work better than trying to force some structure onto my life.

So now, 6-7 years after my conversion, I find I am starting to do some daily scripture reading, and to really internalize it rather than just studying it for class. Now I find that if I don’t do it, I feel like something is missing. It’s a good I pursue rather than something I do out of obligation.

So what helps me connect with scripture?

I highly recommend investing in a Journaling Bible. This Bible has large, lined margins for personal spiritual writing and reflection. Once I got past my initial hesitation at writing in a Bible, I really started to benefit from this tool. Now I bring it to church and take notes on the homily!

One thing I like about the Crossway Journaling Bible is that it has very, very minimal scholarly notes. My New Oxford Annotated is full of them, and for my classes, that is great. But I don’t want those things distracting me when I am just trying to pray the Word.

One thing I really admire about my Muslim friends is the emphasis on the orality of scripture in their tradition. I don’t know of any Christian equivalent to the Islamic tradition of memorizing the entire Qur’an. I have heard of Christians who have memorized the entire New Testament, or monks who know the Psalter by heart, but it’s just not promoted as much for us. So taking a cue from my Muslim brothers and sisters, I am trying to find ways to engage in the orality of the Bible.

One great way to do that is Faith Comes by Hearing, an organization that produces free audio Bibles in hundreds of different languages. They have an iOS app where you can download the entire Bible in several English translations. I am using the ESV, and this recording of it uses multiple cast members, reading dramatically, with light background sound effects. I do a lot of walking every day and this gives my mind something to contemplate, even if it (inevitably) wanders astray.

Another method I’ve been using is Scripture Typer, a website and app for memorizing Bible passages. I have played with memorizing scripture before, but this really makes me do it in a systematic way. I’m starting small: Philemon, 2 John, 3 John, Psalm 23, and some other popular passages from the Bible. It’s pretty fun to see my progress and accumulate points. I admit, my competitive side likes racking up points and seeing where I stand in the website’s rankings. Sometimes God uses the less holy parts of ourselves to do good.

One mode of teaching that I discovered at the Parliament is bibliodrama, a method of biblical study used by Christians and Jews that can only be described as group theater. In it, the leader calls on the group to take the part of biblical characters, to try to go through the feelings and motives of each character in a biblical story. At Parliament, we did this for the Garden of Eden narrative: what made Eve eat from the tree? How did God feel about it? I liked this method because it brought home the humanity of biblical characters and helped us bring our own life into the story, to make it our own. Armed with inventor Peter Pitzele’s book on the method, and the many web resources offered on it, I hope to try this out at my own church.

In short, I am trying to engage with scripture in as many ways as possible. Zabriskie hit the nail on the head when he said that seminary courses are no substitute for daily spiritual reading.

Engaging the Word, part 1.

By the way, I have not been absent out of laziness! Two weeks ago I was out of town for the weekend for Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City. Then I went on a trip with my mom to visit family in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

One of my favorite things about the Bible Belt are church signs. A few we saw:

“What’s missing from ch ch? U R”

“Jesus is sending you a friend request: Confirm / Ignore”

“7, 8, 9, 10! Ready or not, here I come! – Jesus”

This last one was on a sign for a Christian cemetery. It’s easy to make fun of these churches for their cheesy messages, but then again, I still remember them, so it’s actually good marketing.

51hepG0az7L._SX356_BO1,204,203,200_When I was in Charleston, I went to Grace Episcopal Church, and after the service I bought a book from the church bookstore: Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie’s Doing the Bible Better: The Bible Challenge and the Transformation of the Episcopal Church. Zabriskie is an Episcopal priest in Pennsylvania, and several years ago he founded the Bible Challenge to get Episcopalians to read the Bible more. This book is a description of the Bible Challenge and an exhortation to engage with the scriptures more. Zabriskie makes a pretty condemning (and true) point when he cites data showing Episcopalians are the most educated denomination in America, but one of the least biblically literate. He sees daily Bible reading as a cure for the clubishness, division, declining membership, and apathy in so many Episcopal churches. He gives his testimony that daily scripture reading has made him a more patient and kind pastor and family man, a better homilist, and a closer follow of Christ.

Like most hortatory speakers, I think Zabriskie overstates his case. Reading the Bible alone will not cure all the divisions currently plaguing the Anglican communion. But as a grad student in biblical studies and an Episcopalian, I too feel frustrated at the lack of engagement with the Word in Episcopal preaching. Although scripture permeates our liturgy, it doesn’t permeate our homilies. I’m probably caricaturing here, but most Episcopal sermons I have heard are a little Bible, a little Saint Francis, a little Mary Oliver, a little Anne Lamott, a little personal reflection – and they are often very good sermons that leave my soul nourished. But just once I would like a sidenote on the nuance of a Hebrew word, a sentence or two on the context of a Pauline letter in early church politics, an active struggle with one of the many “texts of terror” that don’t show up in the lectionary in the first place. Sure, there are many churches that do this very well, but I want that kind of depth in the context of the inclusivity and liturgy that keeps me in the Episcopal Church.

So for me, Zabriskie’s book is an invitation to think about how I could help my local church in its biblical literacy. There is an off chance I will be leading a bible study next Lent.   I’m both terrified and excited by the prospect. But I have been the beneficiary of so many adult ed/lay ministry programs, such as the Scripture Institute program I did for two years (back when I was Catholic), and I have known for some years that I want to teach in that venue as well as in the university.

Zabriskie tells the story that one summer, he hired a local classicist to tutor him in biblical Greek and Hebrew. Though he loved the mental challenge of the languages, he said he did not feel closer to God, and his sermons did not improve. Zabriskie makes the point from this that there is no substitute for personal engagement.

After a few months of grad school, I now realize the same thing. Reading for class is not the same as reading for my own edification and delight. In the next post I will share a few ways I have used to engage the Word more deeply.

Bus drivers, ballet dancers, and biblical scholars: skill and effortlessness.

I live in San Jose, CA, but three days a week I hike up to Berkeley for school. (Any of you who live in the SF bay area know that is a trek!) What this usually entails is a 20-minute bike ride, a 45-minute bus ride, a 50-minute train ride, and a 30-minute walk. (I could do the drive in 1 hour (on a good day) but I think the stress of that drive would shave a few years off my life.)

This morning I was talking to one of the bus drivers. He told me he used to drive big rigs. I asked him, which was harder? He said buses, hands down, because of the pressure of being responsible for so many lives. He said (paraphrasing), “We make it look easy. But every moment, we are constantly aware of our surroundings, of the traffic, and our minds are always working.”

His statement brought me back to when my mom took me to see The Nutcracker when I was a teen. Ballet dancers make their art look so graceful, so effortless, even fun, as if bouncing and twirling around on stage for an hour just comes naturally. Of course you know that their craft is the result of years of disciplined practice, and results in bloody toes and worn-out joints. But the ballerina, like the bus driver, has practiced their skill for so long that others don’t see how hard it is, because they make it look easy.

I think of biblical languages in the same way. My undergraduate Greek professors made Greek look so easy. Of course, each of them had studied and taught Greek for many years. In the case of one of them, we were the last first-year Greek class she taught before retiring after over dour decades of teaching. Another one of my professors, Daniel Turkeltaub (a Homerist), often compared learning Greek to working out at the gym: there is no substitute for disciplined, methodical practice, day in and day out. Only with that practice can you get to the point where it looks effortless. And, I would add: like the bodybuilder, we aspire to get to the point where it looks effortless.

All this is to say: using this metaphor of building a skill, honing a craft, helps keep me motivated as I try to practice my discipline in Greek and Hebrew.

Speaking of biblical languages, I am hoping to come out with some resources on my blog soon to help students of biblical languages. There are a lot of things I wish I had been aware of when I first started learning Greek, in particular the scholarly conventions and (sometimes) outright falsehoods that we learn in first-year Greek to make the language make sense. As scholar of comparative religions J.Z. Smith titled one of his books, map is not territory. One of the projects I am working on is for a professor writing a handbook for students of biblical Hebrew. Another is something much smaller I will post here.

To collaborate or compete? — and a brief update.

Graduate school is starting to hike up the stress.  Part of the stress is not about academics much at all — it’s about the social life.  In E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, he spends a lot of time talking about the delicate balance between collaboration and competition that any species must engage in to survive.  So every individual organism is focused on perpetuating its genes, helping its family survive.

Thinking about this delicate balance is helping me understand graduate school a lot better.  In seminar we are supposed to appreciate the differing backgrounds of our colleagues.  I feel this strongly in my rabbinic literature class.  The class is housed at the Center for Jewish Studies, and most of the students are in the Jewish Studies program, with only two of us in biblical studies.  So I learn a lot from the other students in the class, because many of them are thinking about Jewish life today or applying this to their studies of modern Judaism.  It means I do not always get the conversations going on, but I much prefer learning about rabbinics in this way than from a Christian professor with a bunch of Christian students.

Still, even though I appreciate what I learn from colleagues, I also feel pressure to compete, to make intelligent points and impress the professor and our fellow students.  We can’t only listen and appreciate.  We must critique and, to a certain extent, self-promote.  Finding that balance is hard.  You want to come off as competent but not an asshole.

I’m finding that the solution to this is just knowing my strengths and weaknesses.  This is very different from being an undergraduate.  As an undergraduate, we are bigger fish in smaller ponds, and being “the best” in our department or major is actually an attainable goal.  As graduate students, we are not supposed to be “the best.”  If we try, we burn out, or become insufferable assholes who mansplain other peoples’ areas of expertise to them because we think we know everything.

Rather, we are supposed to be the best at what we want to be.

Let me explain that.

Nobody can do everything.  Even in a field as specialized as biblical studies, nobody understands everything.  We build niches.  Early on in our careers, we are siphoned off into Hebrew Bible or New Testament.  Then we are trained in particular methodologies: text-criticism, linguistics, archaeology, literary criticism, historical study, etc.  If one goes outside studying the biblical texts themselves, you can get into the worlds of Second Temple Jewish literature (including Dead Sea Scrolls), apocryphal early Christian literature (e.g. Gnostics), rabbinic literature, reception studies, and then the many contemporary methodologies such as feminist criticism, postcolonial criticism, etc.  Though most who become professors will have to be able to teach these things, nobody knows them well enough to publish in all of them.  (This is not to say that scholars don’t develop new areas of expertise over the course of their career. Many do.  One of my professors was trained in Hebrew Bible and became a Darwin scholar mid-career.  That’s a bit of a leap, but you get the idea.)

Right now I am focused on connections between the Bible and Qur’an.  I am not hoping to focus on either Hebrew Bible or New Testament because I hope to know both well enough to work with them.  But this does mean I don’t need to become an expert in Leviticus, or master literary criticism of biblical narratives, to name some things my fellow students specialize in.  I can turn to them when I have questions on these things.  That’s a freeing thought: I don’t have to do everything!

But knowing what direction I want to move into, and knowing my strengths and weaknesses, does mean I have to become an expert in things my fellow students don’t.  Like learning Arabic.  (Yikes.)  And learning the language and literature of Syriac Christians.  And Islamic traditions of tafsir, Qur’an exegesis.  These are all things I know only a little about.  (Double yikes.)

So in the first month of graduate school, I really am finding it’s a different game.  It’s not about being the best.  It’s about knowing what you want to do and focusing on doing that the best that you can.  And when you know what are you good at, what you are an expert in, and what you not good at or knowledgeable in, means that you can engage in that dynamic dance of collaboration and competition, of being both humble enough to learn from colleagues and competent enough that you have something to teach them too.  That is not a model I understood as an undergraduate (which likely says more about me than about my mentors).


 

In other news, I have gone twice now to the Muslim Community Association, the mosque near my apartment.  I really like the vibe of the community.  When I went there the first time two weekends ago, for an educational event on Islamophobia, I felt a strong sense of calling to that community.  I’m hoping to go back and learn from them.  I want my studies to be rooted in a real dialogue with real people about what texts mean today, not just a classroom exercise.


 

This weekend I’m headed to the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City.  Wow.  Then I come back home for two days and immediately head out on a family trip with my mom.  Thankfully we GTU students get a week off late October for reading week, so I can go on this trip and only miss two days of school.  It’ll be interesting balancing the relaxation of a family trip with the anti-relaxation of impending paper deadlines.

Peace!