Negative Reviews and Unintentional Slights: Some Further Tips on Not Being a Jerk in Academia (Skinner)

Some time ago, David Lincicum published a post on not being a jerk at conferences. It was an insightful post and I have returned to it several times since first reading it over the summer. One subtext throughout his piece is that–whether we like it or not–our egos are critically involved in what we do in academia. Sometimes that’s a good thing, because we can pour our passion(s) and the very best parts of ourselves into the things we teach, write, and present at conferences. Other times, it can be a disaster to have our egos so involved. Several recent events have had me thinking about this subject, so I wanted to offer a few of my own thoughts on how not to be a jerk in academia.

Event #1: First, let me backtrack for a moment: a little over two years ago I got a very pointed email from a well-known Jesus scholar, challenging me over a review of his book that I had written 6 years earlier. (That’s right. SIX YEARS EARLIER!) For whatever reason he had just gotten around to reading the review and wanted to take issue with something that I had written. Somewhat bewildered at receiving his email, I politely replied: “None of us is the fullest or best incarnation of ourselves at every moment. The Chris Skinner of today would likely be a little more reserved in his remarks.” Now keep in mind, I didn’t like his book and still don’t like the book, but I was trying to be collegial and gracious–two qualities I very much want to display in my interactions with other scholars. However, that wasn’t enough for him. He wrote back, demanding that I explain myself, that I defend my use of specific words, and parse out why I chose those words. Frankly, I was a bit incredulous and even sought counsel from a friend before responding a second time. I eventually decided to write back, explaining that even though I had a written a lengthy and substantive review six years earlier, I would try to answer his queries. After about six emails between the two of us, he finally seemed satiated, but I have to admit that I was a tad annoyed by the whole thing. That email exchange remains in my inbox to this day. It serves as a reminder to me of the type of scholar and colleague I do and don’t want to be.

Event #2: Flash forward: this past weekend I received a lengthy email from a senior scholar I have never met (or even heard of for that matter). In the email the scholar in question attempts to introduce me to his published works in an area about which I’ve written here and there. After a fairly detailed and seemingly cordial unveiling of his CV, the scholar brought up one of my recent publications, and I was able to divine that the purpose of his email was to question me as to why I had not included his work in the research or bibliography of my book. He felt that his contributions in that area were worthy of being included and that I had overlooked them (or him). Whenever I do a literature review for anything I intend to put in print, I do my very best to track down the most important and substantive contributions in English, German, and French. Sure, there are going to be oversights, and honestly, not only did I not know him or his work, I had never even seen his name. I have subsequently looked at his work and it is good, but I must say that the omission was not a slight in any way. It was honestly a case of pure ignorance on my part.

Event #3: Last week a review of a book I co-edited was published over at the Review of Biblical Literature. The review was written by the eminent NT scholar, Jimmy Dunn, and I was excited to read his review. Generally speaking, he is bullish on the book with the exception of three essays, one of which is mine. My chapter is the last one in the book and he is not as bullish on my contribution, which causes the review to go out with a bit of a whimper. I admit to feeling a bit of a sting when I read his comments, and of course I disagree with his take. But this is neither here nor there. I’m certain he was doing his best to provide an honest review. After reading his review, several friends wrote to me asking if I was going to contact him and challenge him on his comments. I didn’t even have to think. “No,” was my response.

These three events–two of which arose in the past seven days–have been swimming around in my head and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write about them. However, I thought these would be useful reflections for those who find themselves in similar situations. So here goes….

(1) We are all personally invested in the things we write, often deeply so. We spend hours reading, translating, researching, and writing and we want our contributions to mean something. Many of us are high-strung individuals who love a good argument and want to bend others to our way of seeing things. However, it is imperative that we remain humble enough to hear the critiques of others. I tell my students that when I was younger, I had lots of answers and not enough questions. Now, one of my goals is to die with more questions than answers. This will keep me in the pursuit of humility (I’m sure I’m currently failing at that) and ever open to the ways in which I could be wrong.

(2) Sooner or later, everyone who puts their ideas out for public consumption is going to receive an unfavorable review from someone. So try not to take it personally. My first published book–a revision of my dissertation–was reviewed three times in print. Two were very positive and one was, let’s say “lukewarm.” In that lukewarm review, the reviewer clearly revealed by some of his comments that he had not thoroughly read (or at least had not understood) the second chapter in which I set forth my methodology. I knew the reviewer well enough to contact him and had even interviewed him for my previous blog, but I decided not to pursue it. Maybe he was pressed for time and didn’t read as carefully as he could have. Perhaps he didn’t understand my methodology and that misunderstanding came through in his negative comments. I decided that I was going to give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides, I have a friend in academia who swears that when you write a book, there is no such thing as bad publicity. It’s good to be loved and even good to be hated. Be worried when you are ignored!

(3) Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to contact someone who has given your work an unfavorable review. I personally know  several well-known senior scholars who have gotten angry, disrespectful, and nasty emails from junior scholars in reaction to an unfavorable review. Not everyone is going to like what you’ve written. Once you come to terms with that, you’ll be a lot happier in this profession. (However, if you get a review like this, I think everyone would agree that it’s okay to go all-out to have your voice, and your argument heard. See here for the appropriate response to the linked review.)

(4) We can all be sensitive about different things, and sometimes it’s amazing how small and insignificant those things can be. Earlier this year I was reading editorial comments on a chapter I had written. One word change from the editor–one stinking word change in my chapter–and I started getting paranoid. I thought, “this guy hates my work.” Moments like these beg for an infusion of perspective. A few years ago I co-edited a book to which John Meier contributed. The copy editor introduced a fairly noticeable error into his chapter and failed to remove it. When I saw that the error had made its way into the final published form of the book, I was devastated. I saw Prof. Meier a few weeks later and told him (with some fear and trepidation) about this gaffe. His response was classic. He said, “There’s still people starving in the world, right? Let’s not make a big deal over one footnote.” What a perspective!

(5) No matter what, be nice. For eight years I worked in a church. The protocol in answering the phone was pretty simple: thank the caller for phoning in, identify yourself by name, ask how you can help, and above all, BE NICE. I have found that this approach works in every other area of my life, even (and especially) with those I have strong disagreements with.

At the end of the day, those of us who get to do this for a living are exceptionally fortunate. We get to spend our days thinking, talking, studying, and writing about something we love. Try to remember that the next time someone seemingly leaves you out or considers your work compelling enough to read (then possibly disagree with)!

Jesus in Contemporary Culture: Part 5; A Headache Jesus Can’t Shake (Skinner)

Last Temptation.1Today in my Jesus class we began watching Martin Scorsese’s (in)famous film, The Last Temptation of Christ. We are asking our students to go through several intellectual exercises as they watch these films. First, we want them to ask, “If this film were the only source of my knowledge about Jesus, what would I know about him?” In other words, we want them to do their best to divorce themselves from what they already know (or think they know) and look at Jesus through fresh eyes. Second, we are trying to get them to think about various presentations of Jesus in light of the Chalcedonian definition. We want them to note where certain portraits of Jesus lean toward either the human or divine. Even though we are only a third of the way through the film, I can already tell by the looks on students’ faces that they are receiving Scorsese’s Jesus with greater reluctance than Gibson’s Jesus.

The portrait in Last Temptation is one of my favorites because, for all of its idiosyncrasies, its presentation of Jesus is so raw and unrestrained. The film can be very very slow (especially at the beginning) but the way it pictures Jesus coming to terms with his call (almost like a headache he can’t shake) is so compelling. It also easy to get a feel for how certain crowds could have simultaneously found him both crazy and compelling enough to follow. Our readings of the Gospels–like our understandings of Jesus–can be very docetic at times. This film prevents us from lapsing into such myopia.

I look forward to participating in (and sharing here) the discussion that arises from watching the film. For now, enjoy this clip:

Beyond the Myth/History Binary Approach to the Gospels (Gupta)

Ralph-P-MartinIn two of the courses I am teaching, we are wrestling with questions about what the Gospels are and how they relate to history. In one course (introduction to Gospels) we delved into the history of discussion of the question about genre. In the other course (Christology of the NT) we talked about the insightful Wright/Hays debacle (SBL review session of Seeking the Identity of Jesus) where it eventually became apparent that both scholars value “theological story” and “history” but disagree on the starting point and the appropriate balance.

Still, scholars today tend to be silo-ed into camps that focus either on Gospels as literature (where matters of historicity are sometimes forsaken) or Gospels as history (where the tendency is sometimes to defend its historicity in a rigid manner). It was refreshing, then, for me to have sat down in the library and randomly stumbled upon Ralph Martin’s 1986 Mark: Evangelist and Theologian. Writing largely before the “theological interpretation of Scripture” revolution and just after Culpepper’s ground-breaking Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (1983), Martin presents an insightful perspective at a major transition point from historical study to literary-theological study.

“Mark is at once evangelist and theologian. If we may, for the sake of argument, separate these distinctive roles in which he is cast, we may say that as evangelist he is concerned to set out the evidence that Jesus was an empirical figure of history, and his putting together of traditions to do with the early life of Jesus has a design to set him firmly on Palestinian soil as teacher and man. In his capacity as theologian Mark wishes to convey the teaching that he is also none other than the church’s Lord who, looked at from the evangelist’s standpoint, is now exalted and worthy of the highest honours. It is faith which glimpses the true worthiness of Jesus and appreciates his true stature…[Mark] sees the human Jesus as a figure who is both man and more-than-man since what he was incognito and known only to the percipient faith in the days of his flesh has become plainly visible since his enthronement, and is the accepted article of the church’s confession” (Ralph Martin, Storyteller, 139).

Martin proposes an evangelist(/historian)+theologian double-identity that is somehow both paradoxical and yet also sensible given the challenge of the person of Jesus himself, remembered and worshipped.

Latest (Sept 2014) Issue of JSNT – Martin, deSilva, and more (Gupta)

Very excited about the Sept 2014 issue of JSNT, especially the essay by David deSilva who is currently working on a large commentary on Galatians (NICNT, revision).

Dale Martin, “Jesus in Jerusalem: Armed and Not Dangerous”

David deSilva, “Grace, the Law, and Justification in 4 Ezra and the Pauline Letters: A Dialogue”

C. Andrew Ballard, “Tongue-tied and Taunted: Paul, Poor Rhetoric, and Paltry Leadership in 2 Cor 5:13″

Brian Glenney and John T. Noble, “Perception and Prosopagnosia in Mark 8.22-26″

Jeffrey M. Tripp, “A Tale of Two Riots: The synkrisis of the Temples of Ephesus and Jerusalem in Acts 19-23″

 

Hoffmeier, Wenham, Sparks: The Genesis-Genre Debate Continues (Gupta)

Sparks

You may have caught the hoopla in the news recently over statements Christian music artistic Gungor made about his view of Genesis and creation. Michael Gungor is quoted as saying this:

I have no more ability to believe, for example, that the first people on earth were a couple named Adam and Eve that lived 6,000 years ago. I have no ability to believe that there was a flood that covered all the highest mountains of the world only 4,000 years ago and that all of the animal species that exist today are here because they were carried on an ark and then somehow walked or flew all around the world from a mountain in the middle east after the water dried up. I have no more ability to believe these things than I do to believe in Santa Clause or to not believe in gravity. But I have a choice on what to do with these unbeliefs. I could either throw out those stories as lies, or I could try to find some value in them as stories. But this is what happens…

If you try to find some value in them as stories, there will be some people that say that you aren’t a Christian anymore because you don’t believe the Bible is true or “authoritative”. Even if you try to argue that you think there is a truth to the stories, just not in an historical sense; that doesn’t matter.

Gungor did not realize the backlash from the evangelical public he would receive over this perspective, including quite a few show cancellations from offended venues.

Some things never change. Debates over how to read Genesis properly are repeated in nearly every generation.

And there is no lack of publications on this subject. In 1999, Zondervan published a multi-view title called Three Views on Creation and Evolution. In 2013, Four Views on the Historical Adam appeared. And now, in 2015 we await the release of a new conversation: Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters (Zondervan, Jan 2015). This volumed, edited by Charles Halton, offers perspectives from these scholars

  • James K. Hoffmeier: Theological History
  • Gordon J. Wenham: Proto-History
  • Kenton K. Sparks: Ancient Historiography

When I first saw this book advertised, I wondered, do we really need yet another iteration of this conversation? But three things give me hope for this book generating some positive reflection.

(1) The Contributors: I don’t know the work of Hoffmeier, but Wenham is one of the finest living Old Testament scholars and I imagine will present a very cogent perspective. I got to know Sparks when I worked for a time at Eastern University and he has also distinguished himself as a knowledgeable scholar and capable communicator with some important things to say about Scripture/canon, hermeneutics, ethics and history.

(2)  The Focus: Genre. I doubt all matters relating to genre will be solved in this book, but focusing on the genre in general is an important step towards understanding interpretive fault lines. The what are Genesis 1-2 trying to communicate approach is the right place to start before talking about historical evidence and inerrancy.

(3) The Length: Mercifully, the book is under 200 pages (176p to be exact). That makes this potentially useful as a supplemental textbook for a Pentateuch course or a seminar on hermeneutics.

Check out the Amazon page here.

Jesus in Contemporary Culture: Part 4; Restraint and Masculinity (Skinner)

Muscle JesusOver the past three weeks, I have been blogging my way through a new course that I’m currently team-teaching with a colleague from my department. The course is called, “Jesus in Contemporary Culture.” Here are the first three installments if you need to catch up (1, 2, 3). On Monday our class finally finished watching The Passion of the Christ. Our past two sessions–Wednesday and today–have served as our “wrap up” before moving on to our next film, The Last Temptation of Christ.

During our Wednesday class, one of the students commented on Jesus’ “composure” just before and during the flogging scene. That scene in particular seemed to stick with students more than any other part of the film. The student was interested in how Jesus was able to remain so restrained in the face of cruelty, mockery, and suffering. As I was watching the Passion again this time, it hit me that there are some striking similarities between the torture Jesus undergoes and the final scene from Braveheart (another Mel Gibson film). In the scene in question (embedded below), William Wallace (played by Gibson) has been captured by the English authorities and is mocked and tortured relentlessly before being “drawn and quartered.” Just like the Passion, William Wallace’s last moments unfold before a bloodthirsty crowd that calls for his death. Just like the Passion, there are continued cutaways to Wallace’s followers who stand disguised in the crowd and stoically watch his death. Just like the Passion, Wallace displays both strength and defiance in the face of cruelty. And, just like the brief hint at resurrection at the very end of the Passion, there is a brief battle scene at the end of Braveheart that reveals the ultimate victory brought by Wallace’s death. In light of these parallels, it’s hard to deny the influence Gibson’s Christianity had on his shooting of Braveheart. (For what it’s worth, I think Simon Joseph’s recent blog post on Jesus in film is helpful and has some points of contact with my recent discussion here).

Today’s session was devoted to looking at Jesus and masculinity. We looked at Fight Club churches, some quotes about the “masculine Jesus” from prominent evangelicals like John Piper and Mark Driscoll, and other phenomena that emphasize a muscular Christianity rooted in a “punch-you-in-the-face” type of Jesus. There is little doubt that this conception of Jesus in contemporary Western culture influenced Gibson’s Christ who “takes his beating like a man.” Though we sought to problematize this understanding of Jesus and related conceptions of Christianity, many of our students indicated that these ideas were quite familiar to them.

I’m really looking forward to next week where we look at Willem Dafoe’s Jesus who is anything but “composed” and “restrained.” I’m hoping the contrast will spark some good discussion.