May 27, 2017

Academic Status Update

I am very pleased to announce that I've been formally accepted into graduate studies at the University of St. Mary's, Twickenham, where I'll be pursuing an M.Phil in New Testament and writing my thesis on Matthew 2:22. Best of all, I get to work under the supervision of Chris Keith, with James Crossley and Steve Walton providing much wisdom and counsel as well. The program is long distance with some travel and officially starts in October.

Here's the first paragraph of my approved research proposal:
My thesis will argue that Matthew 2:15-22 was originally recognized as a historically contextualized narrative, evoking audience memory of the recent Judean past - specifically, the brief window of time during which Archelaus functioned as presumptive King of both Judea and Galilee. Recognizing this context enables an “historical” reading of the text which employs dramatic irony, as follows. The writer of Matthew sets Jesus’ return from Egypt during an infamous political transition, using proximity of travel and continuity of story time to evoke Archelaus’ catastrophic and “frightening” debut as presumptive king (Antiq.17.194-218). A year from ‘now’ Augustus will have split Herod’s kingdom, demoting Archelaus to a regional ethnarch and upgrading Antipas’ Galilee from subordinate to independent tetrarchy (deliberately controverting Herod’s will; Antiq.17.189,317-20; Cf. Mary Smallwood, Harold Hoehner, Arnaldo Momigliano; contra Emil Schürer). Knowing this ‘future’ imbues Matt.2:22 with dramatic irony because an Archelaus “reigning in Judea” and “replacing his father” has not yet sailed for Italy to stand before Caesar, but God and the audience possess foreknowledge about Joseph's near future. Soon, Archelaus will lose control over the “district” of Galilee, but Joseph must trust and obey God’s instructions right now, without knowing at how God will provide safety. From a critical perspective, this thesis attempts to reconstruct the original reception of a first century Jewish audience, who would have imaginatively integrated the story world of Matthew’s narrative into the remembered world of Judea’s recent past. Whether or not this contextualization of Matthew’s discourse in any way reflects real events from the actual past is a separate question, but this “historical” reading potentially offers multiple insights which might help direct historiographical inquiries and other future research.
For their many years of encouragement, I especially want to thank all of the biblioblogging and facebooking scholars who've tutored me freely online since 2008. When my thesis is finished, its awesomeness will be due to your generosity. Thanks so much! This one's for you...

May 20, 2017

Does Cognitive Surplus Breed Journalistic Scholarship?

Nijay Gupta said something profound on Crux Sola last week that I think represents an encouraging trend. Here's the quote, with emphasis added to the portion of my particular interest.
In many ways, I wish Matt’s book didn’t need to be written. While I deeply appreciate his thoughtful discussion of this subject, to me it represents a reading of Scripture that should simply be clear and assumed, rather than something needing such careful defense. But the reality is that there is a history of scholarship that has locked “faith” (pistis) into being something cognitive, a non-work, and even some have referred to it as “passive”! 
For more on active faith vs passive belief, read the post. Now, let's consider the broader trend which is here represented. Let's examine the idea that "a reading of Scripture" can seem "clear and assumed" and yet require "careful defense" against the oppressive "history of scholarship" that has locked in a wrong-headed view. How could such a thing happen, on both sides of the contrast?

On the one hand, this is not unusual. Nijay Gupta is one of several promising young Ph.D's, establishing themselves in the field, minting worthy new publications with verve, aplomb, and a healthy dose of ambition. On some level, this is how scholarship has always worked. After several generations of academics had shared similar views on a subject, along comes a new generation whose life experience has not been subjected to quite the same degree of cultural conditioning. This is how you get the Reformation, or the Enlightenment, or any other Kuhn-ian Revolution in knowledge and understanding. Specific points of departure are always distinct in each movement, but the overall pattern is as old as academic inquiry itself.

On the other hand, something seems different about our current revolution. It's NOT just that Gupta is a young protestant criticizing old protestants, because that trend is nearly 500 years old. I am also NOT thinking about how Gupta (and Matt Bates) are challenging a core doctrine of Protestantism itself, because that's happened before and will happen again. I am further NOT thinking about how the internet is expanding the scope and potential impact of such turning point scholarship in our day, because the medium in this case isn't really the message.

What I AM referring to is the larger and unprecedented trend of interpretative self-confidence, which we see in several recent movements, from religious "nones and dones" to the rise of mythicism, but also late 20th century trends like the proliferation of independent bible churches and the house church and "emergent" movements. What these all have in common is not necessarily a rejection of experts and authorities but (more broadly) a general lack of fear (lack of consequences to be faced) when separating the intellectual needs of the individual reader from the corporate needs of institutional systems. Thus, again, I call this interpretative self-confidence.

Interestingly, there's an socio-economic parallel to this trend in the rise of vocational transience and the fall of social organizations; the miracle of the modern economy enabled a lot of blue collar workers to worry less (far less than earlier generations) about losing a job, and that kind of economic self-sufficiency makes it less necessary to socialize within civic associations (Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, Etc) or maintain the facade of religious attendance. One reason church attendance has been dropping in the US (or, historically, tends to drop in most urban industrial areas) is because modern economics makes it no longer necessary to hold good social standing within a local community in order to sustain all prospects of earning a living. In other words, to some degree, this is all just the long-term influence of increasing urbanization and mass-communication abilities, which foster individualism and increase diversity, while challenging the need for existing instututional systems. This even happened on a much smaller scale in the Greek cities post-Alexander-the-Great. Such has it ever been. Such will it ever be.

Still, I do feel today there is something more going on.

Maybe we're just reaching the apex of the socio-economic curve. Maybe it's the rise of technology that's increasing our Cognitive Surplus. My grandparents went through the Great Depression, my parents were highly motivated to achieve economically, I've chosen career(s) that allow me to spend time on creative pursuits, my kids' friends are more likely to assemble a series of gigs than a single career, and my grandkids' generation might someday receive basic income without needing to work. There are doubtless some unpredictable ramifications of all this, if we keep up present trends, but we're already seeing the first fruits of all this Cognitive Surplus today.

Why are there so many protestants today who are willing to hear out the arguments of Matt Bates and Nijay Gupta, without fearfully shutting them down because it runs foul of dogmatic orthodoxy? Why is it just now becoming possible for someone to argue defensibly against 500 year old concept which has served well the systemic needs of Protestant institutions? Why is it starting to feel more familiar when I see one of these young christian scholars arguing boldly in favor of clear and obvious readings in opposition against the traditional views of historical scholarship?

Maybe it's just the latest round of the perpetual cycle, but it feels different, particularly because I can't see where these new arguments serve anything other than the persnickety academic desire to attempt to speak accurately about what we believe we are seeing. In the year 2017, I think educated people are pretty good at recognizing bias, spin, or partisanship, and increasingly - if I'm not mistaken - bias, spin, and partisanship are NOT what's driving these fresh bursts of New Testament scholarship.

When these things grab my attention, like Nijay Gupta's blog post grabbed my attention, there seems to be a genuine spirit of journalism - which is primarily motivated by the kind of person who says, "I saw something. It's relevant and informative. I feel a responsibility to tell other people about it."

Historically, much of scholarship has been critical or apologetic, and "academic freedom" has been most often enjoyed by scholars who happened to get hired by intellectually amenable institutions. Increasingly, however (whether because of the miraculous modern economy, our embrace of diversity, the loosening of religious dogmas, or all three, or something else I'm not aware of) what I think we're starting to see more of is scholarship driven by journalistic desires.

First and foremost, that seems to be a purer form of scholarship as it should be, and I dearly hope the trend will continue.

Secondly, and more pointedly, I hope Protestant institutions turn out to be humbly and repeatedly chastened by a new generation which loves their heritage but does not fear its gatekeepers.

There is so much we need to undo.

Anon, then...

May 7, 2017

"Connected Universe" and "the Five C's of Historical Thinking"

With their 15th feature film in this series, Marvel Studios continues to demonstrate cinematic world-building that has depth, vision, and four-dimensional verisimilitude. The characters and situations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe continue developing in ways that are well thought through, overall. But not least among the many reasons I love watching these MCU movies is because great storytelling inspires me to think about historiography. Specifically, the idea of "Connectedness" reminds me of Thomas Andrews' and Flannery Burke's "Five C's of Thinking Historically", from their 2007 article for the AHA (American Historical Association).

The Five C's are: (1) Change over Time, (2) Context, (3) Causality, (4) Contingency, and (5) Complexity. It's an important piece that's received a great deal of attention, so I won't attempt to summarize it here, but I will briefly note the prominence of Sam Wineburg's 2001 classic, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Although Wineburg didn't compare fiction and non-fiction, it is my personal observation that one of the many ways human brains begin learn to think historically is by maintaining an awareness of elaborate fictional worlds as they develop. In this regard, I further believe that serialized storytelling in visual media has the advantage of keeping CHANGE front and center. In a novel, you might forget the main character received a meaningful scar or developed a limp (until the text finds a reason to remind you about such a detail), but in films, television, or comic books you receive constant reminders of those residual changes simply because of the visual representation. The Marvel Comics Universe (like their Distinguished Competition) are the products of literally thousands of story creators - hundreds each year - who have modified a single story world with new creative dynamics on a monthly basis, and for several decades. There's a lot to keep up with, and although the visual aspect makes the information more feasibly managed, that also expands the limits of how much development can be attempted, from one year to another. 

My point here is that it can be a bit of a cognitive workout. Keeping up with an entire "connected universe" pushes the brain in some ways that you don't get if the story content of your favorite tv show is more self-contained and episodic. Or, as my daughter pointed out with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, the whole audience can enjoy the story on a surface level but it also rewards thoughtful viewers who make a few deeper connections (and I'm not just talking about "easter eggs"; watch some of the recent mini-features on the MCU DVDs for commentary about this). I say again, this is one common way in which people begin to develop important skills in historical thinking. Others learn the 5 C's when they become skillful at party planning, or take on long-term logistical problems, or learn to manage complex ongoing projects, and so forth.

Some academic professionals learn to think historically because they write books, which require long term vision, accomplishing a variety of tasks on a demanding schedule, and overcoming a complex set of obstacles as the project develops. In fact, I've met some scholars who reveal no penchant for historical thinking except when they're thinking about the development of documents - like the supposed proto-history of the four cannonical Gospels. It might even be fair to say that most of the genuine historical thinking which one typically comes across in the guild of New Testament scholars has typically focused on Gospel composition. In those conversations, they assess complex hypothetical scenarios, but when I string together purported events featuring the Gospels narrative protagonist(s), or featuring Paul and his traveling companions, I too often get responses ranging from "deer in headlights" to "you can't do that" to "I don't trust these kinds of constructions." Well, fiddle-de-dee. 

WHY don't YOU deal well with historical thinking? 

Perhaps one reason you don't is because you haven't yet had the pleasure of engaging your mind at great length with a large enough fictional universe. Yes, there are other ways to get there, as I've noted above, and obviously not everyone who watches Marvel Movies or reads Marvel Comics will engage them deeply enough to develop the mental skills which can lead towards effective historical thinking. But this kind of thing is a big opportunity. At the very least, it's a potential means of entry.

Regular readers know how much I long for the day when all christian believers (or, just for a start, trained professional scholars) will engage the "story content" of the New Testament with the same kind of "mentally connected" world building that enables the development of thinking about (1) Change over Time, (2) Context, (3) Causality, (4) Contingency, and (5) Complexity.

If you can't do that yet when thinking about the historical past, try engaging deeply for a number of years with an elaborate fictional universe that keeps developing continuously. Great historical minds do occasionally begin their development from such humble beginnings.

Besides, fiction and non-fiction are alike in many other aspects. If you want to know more about that, try searching my site here, or waiting to see what I write in the future.


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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton