Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Hall of Fame Teachers in My Academic Life, Part 1

Dr. Thomas Dowdy passed away last Sunday evening; he had battled brain cancer for several years.

The news asked me to reflect on those teachers that had shaped my life; Dr. Dowdy was certainly amongst that small group. Initially though, I should clarify that those professors who impacted my life the most were not those who provided me with the most information or even that information upon which I draw most often. The best teachers were not necessarily those who provided the easiest route to an A or made that process incredibly arduous. In fact, the contributions of the best teachers in my life are like wine in that their insights have to age before I appreciate their true flavor.

Dr. Dowdy deserves a place on this list. Admittedly, the practice of strict grade curving and testing us on the minutiae of picture captions are not ones I intend to emulate in my own teaching. However, he forced me to be excellent in my thinking and writing. He helped me understand for the first time that reality was but a social construction. In light of this, however, we were not free to make our way through the world thoughtlessly. That the world was constructed by us required and demanded our best, for we were ultimately responsible for what we made of this world. Even more important to my intellectual mindset, he taught me the central role languages plays in this construction. When I am squinting my eyes seeking to parse a Greek verb, I can remember that language matters.

Most subtly, however, Dr. Dowdy believed in me in a sincere way. Instead of the off-hand compliment, he pointed out my gifts but encouraged me to sharpen them even farther.

For all these things, I thank Dr. Dowdy and pray for peace in his family. I know that he is in peace even now.

My plan is to make this an ongoing feature of this blog; feel free to laugh at my blog ambition at this point. Nevertheless, I am going to focus on teachers through college; I think seminary and graduate school are still too close to assess them properly. Some of the teachers will include Carolyn Cole, Richard Luckert, Kevin Mays, Warren McWilliams and others. More forthcoming...

Celebrity scholarship

Bart Ehrman is all over various media outlets recently. The author of Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman's work was recently profiled in the Washington Post and last night on the Daily Show. It will be replayed 600 times someday, so I would recommend catching it.

Ehrman is a very provocative and well-known scholar in academia. His work on text criticism, though controversial, is imminently influential. If you are an undergraduate student taking NT introduction at a secular college, his textbook is probably in your hands. Most of the time, scholars laboring in the obscure field of text-criticism do not become regulars in the media spotlight; the dusty job of collating ancient manuscripts is not exactly the stuff of late night television or the evening news.

However, what Ehrman has achieved may be telling to the future of the study of religion. In much the same way as Elaine Pagels has done in her work, Ehrman's faith journey is equally the subject of his popular work as is his revelation that text criticism challenges the naive notion that we have the NT as it was in its inception. A recovering fundamentalist, he intertwines his own struggles with the academic insights of text criticism and in doing so enlivens an area of study unknown to many people.

The fact is that there are thousands of NT manuscripts spanning the ages. We have 4th century scraps of papyrus (i.e., ancient paper) and rather intact codices (i.e., bound books) from the 8th century containing the whole of the NT as we know it today. What we do not have are Paul's or Mark's "autographs," those pieces of papyrus which first contained the letter to the Romans or the gospel narratives.

(On an aside, we might even doubt the existence of "an original" text as if the writers sent the final draft to the printer and that was that. The circulation of letters and narratives in early Christianity suggests that editing and sharing was an ongoing process; at what point do we declare a piece of writing original? Think about, for example, the work of Shakespeare as David Parker has suggested in The Living Texts of the Gospel. What would we deem the "original" of any of his plays. They were constantly edited by his own hand and later received the stage notes. At what point is the process of composition complete?)

What we also do not have are manuscripts that agree with one another completely. The majority of the errors are relatively minor: spelling mistakes, skipping lines, switching the order of words. Nevertheless, there are significant divergences which ought to cause us pause.

This is where Ehrman has stepped in and extended a tradition of scholarship that started examining textual variants and asking, "Why?". Instead of envisioning robotic scribes, Ehrman sees the scribes as active interpreters, trying to make sense of cryptic texts; their changes to the text are motivated by concerns for orthodoxy.

While his thesis is not unchallenged, Ehrman may signal with his work a new avenue for the popular distribution of the academy's work. What if we remove the facade of objectivity and admit that the work we do in our offices and libraries is of existential import, not just to people sitting in the pews but to those sleeping in on Sunday mornings? Even more, what if we leave the protective cocoon of scholarship and dare to make our work comprehensible to people outside of the guild?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The sham of "authenticity"

Why do we assail one another with the false notion of authenticity? I wonder whether the presence of the "other" is what prompts both individuals and communities to defend their sense of self. In light of the political realities of oppression, such reactions are natural in that "authentic" borderlines appear to be a prerequisite for justice. If individuals simply acquiesce to the ideology and demands of the dominant group and assimilate to their demands, then the battle has been lost.

Nevertheless, to argue for authenticity merely buys into the judgments of the majority. If diversity is word, shouldn't authenticity be that against which we strive?

It seems to me that is also a problem amongst Christians who define themselves over against who they are not. So-called "authentic Christianity" is defined within narrow doctrinal, ideological, or ethical concerns. Anyone beyond the pale of such strictures is labeled a heretic, or simply, "one of them."

In our world today, I wonder whether the category of "authenticity" remains viable. Cultures and peoples are commodified by our markets so that "foreign" or "alien" ways of life are domesticated, that is, reduced to the minimal core so that we can all consume some small part of an other's life. Even more, authenticity remains the weapon of the powerful, the apparatus of cultural overseers.