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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Critically thinking about the faith is not equivalent to criticizing the faith, as some may think, although that may be part of critical thinking. Rather, thinking critically about the faith is to continue to ask questions, to inquire about the history of the faith, its present relevancy, and its future hopes. It is also to admit its flaws and weaknesses with honesty and transparency.
The popular idea that God wrote the Bible for me needs to be stamped out.
That second one especially — I can’t agree more. Yes, scripture speaks to us today, but if we ignore the very different cultural backgrounds of the humans who wrote it down and edited it, we miss a lot of its meaning.
Three weeks in and graduate school is so far going swimmingly. The classes are easier than I thought they would be; my fellow students are a diverse, intelligent, and friendly bunch; and my professors are helpful. Also, after three years of the frantic quarter system, it is so nice to be back on the semester system!
I elected to take a language-heavy term this semester. Thankfully I got much of my biblical languages work done as an undergraduate, but I believe there is always more to learn. So I am taking Dead Sea Scrolls, Muslim-Christian Dialogue, Intro to Rabbinic Literature, and Northwest Semitic Epigraphy. That last class is basically Hebrew inscriptions from the 10th to 6th centuries BCE, which is often harder to make out than it is to actually parse and understand. The Dead Sea Scrolls class also has a Hebrew reading section so I am getting practice on unpointed texts.
After going to an undergrad school where the student body was rather, well, monochromatic, the diversity of the Graduate Theological Union is a breath of fresh air. The GTU is a consortium of seminaries and institutes, both ecumenical and interreligious. Biblical Studies students (that is, me) get to cross-register with UC Berkeley’s Classics and Near Eastern Studies departments, which opens doors into Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Akkadian, Sumerian, Egyptian, Aramaic, Ugaritic, and, most important for later, Arabic.
The school I affiliate with, the Jesuit School of Theology, is also a part of Santa Clara University (my undergrad school). This means I get to keep my SCU student job working in Archives and Special Collections. My main task in that department is showing off the Saint John’s Bible, which we have a Heritage Edition (high-quality facsimile) of. Today I gave presentations on Science and Religion in the Saint John’s Bible to two sections of a freshman religious studies class. This was my first time presenting the SJB to a class, and it was a very gratifying experience. My next class visit is Friday, and then I am doing two more in November.
A few other things I have been pondering lately.
First, the other day I was riding BART home and praying/discerning what my next step will be in graduate school. I have the kind of scholarly temperament where I like to make broad connections. I like doing things not many others have looked at. I have the heart that wants to change the world now, and a head that enjoys being an antiquarian and a philologist.
So it hit me, while I was riding the train and listening to Surah ar-Rahman, that I should move into the connections between Qur’an and Bible. A few of my professors assured me that yes, this is a thing, and it seems it is a hot thing in biblical studies these days. Though I have taken classes on the Qur’an and dabbled ever-so-slightly in Qur’anic Arabic, it has never occurred to me that this might be my calling.
Mostly, I want Christians to be aware that we are all part of one spiritual heritage, that Muslims are not some terrifying collective stranger to be feared. Our scriptures have more in common than we think.
And I guess being married (coming up on one month now) has made me more settled in general. I dabbled a lot as an undergraduate, and that dabbling made me a stronger graduate student, but I am at a point now where I must focus my interest in a sustained research direction. And thankfully my languages are strong enough that I don’t need to choose Tanakh or New Testament to focus on, but can maybe work across both.
Major point: marriage has changed the way I think. I like who I am as a married man. And of course, I love the woman I married.
I promised one last point. I really liked Jamie Holmes’ piece in the New York Times, “The Case for Teaching Ignorance.” In it she focuses on teaching ignorance in the science curriculum. But why not the humanities?
When I am in class decoding an ancient inscription, pondering the nature of the sectarian community at Qumran, or theorizing about the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism, it is very obvious that we antiquarians know very little. But for at least a year now I have thought we could convey this better to the public.
So what about this book idea: an anthology on what we don’t know about the ancient world. Each chapter would be written by an esteemed expert in a given field. So a Homer expert could write about what we don’t know about Homer, a Qumran expert on what we don’t know about Qumran, and so forth. And each chapter would have to answer the question of what one find would answer the most questions about that area. From classical antiquity we have many writings we know only by name, since all copies are lost to us. But if we found the epic that narrates the time gap between the Iliad and the Odyssey, what might we answer? If we found the lost parts of Aeschylus’ Prometheus trilogy, what might we discover? So the title of this might be “Missing Manuscripts.” Or something like that.
Just a thought. Signing out for now.
A few weeks ago I concluded my summer reading group on Greco-Roman religion. When I realized over spring break that I was meant to be a biblical scholar, I waltzed into my professor’s office the first week of classes and asked if he would be my guide to the religions of Greece and Rome. I am grateful for his patience with my seemingly last-minute whimsy — especially because this is such a vital topic for understanding early Christianity. We continued through the summer.
What did we read?
- Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi
- Jon Mikalson, Ancient Greek Religion
- Mary Beard, Religions of Rome, Volume I: A History
- Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, Book I
- Simon Price, The Imperial Cult in Asia Minor
- R. Gordon Wasson, The Road to Eleusis
- Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice
- Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets
- Apolostos Athanasakkis, The Orphic Hymns
- W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion
- E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational
- Chris Faraone, Ancient Greek Love Magic
What did I get out of the reading group?
My professor defined Greek religion as “approaching the gods with respect and knowledge that they are more powerful.” The religion of the Greeks involved piety, which is knowing your place in the universe. It involved satisfying various psychological and cultural needs: love, food, the security of the state, etc., all of which required the help of the gods to keep going. From those premises, we went on to look at the functions Greek and Roman religions served for their practitioners, and tried to draw connections to modern times.
First, I was reminded how difficult it is to really compare religions. It’s very easy to forget that there is no such thing as a “religion,” that it’s a made-up construct. It is useful for explaining some things but we must not take it too seriously.
It is hard to compare religions because any religious tradition sufficiently broad has both sides of many of the binaries members or scholars of that religion construct to simplify it. These binaries are usually created for some kind of apologetic purpose, and I tend not to trust them.
So for example, it might be easy to say that Greco-Roman polytheism was just empty ritual, done more for the purpose of social cohesion than for any kind of individual, powerful relationship with a deity. But then we look at the Dionysiac cult, or the Orphic cult, or any number of the mystery religions that sprung up during the Hellenistic era. Even the “empty ritual” of the imperial cult could be heartfelt devotion, as Simon Price demonstrated in The Imperial Cult in Asia Minor.
One reason some study Greco-Roman religions is to better understand why early Christianity was so successful. One is tempted to ask: what was Greco-Roman religion missing? I’m not sure that is even a valid question. I’m still figuring it out. But understanding that classical paganism was very multi-faceted defeats means we can’t seek facile answers to the question above. The minute we think something was missing, it turns out it was there, but in a form we may not recognize. For example, Matthew Ferguson at Adversus Apologetica argues that there was a concept of “sacred text” in Greek polytheism. (His essay is long but worth checking out!)
Second, if religion is in part about getting what one needs from the gods, it only makes sense that religious syncretism is a practice of those who need the help of the gods most. In other words, if you need all the help you can get, you will request it from all the gods you can get. So the evidence on magical papyri and mystery cults, both practices associated with the socially marginalized, show influences from all over the Mediterranean. Some of the liturgies of mystery cults quoted in Marvin Meyer’s sourcebook quote from Greek, Jewish, Persian, and several other pantheons and cults.
These syncretistic practices, because they come from the marginalized, represented a threat to the elites who write most of what we know about them. Just witness the Mother Cybele or the cult of Dionysus in Rome!
Third, at the end of the term I had to revise my professor’s definition. I would say that Greek religion is “requesting favors of the gods with respect and knowledge that they are more powerful.” From this perspective, religion is a tool for getting what we need from the gods, whether or not you believe those gods and their myths are real and true.
Just some thoughts. Summer is winding down for me — I get married this Saturday, have a honeymoon for one week, then immediately start my MA program. Yikes. So this week is the calm before the storm.