Friday, January 9, 2009

Reading the Good Book Well: Jerry Camery-Hoggatt's Guide to Marcionite Interpretation

I finally stumbled upon the hermeneutics textbook I have spent years looking for--something suitable for first and second year college students, methodologically sophisticated, a book my students will actually read (and enjoy).

First clue: The blurb on the back says that Camery-Hoggatt writes academic stuff "In addition to his popular fiction." I picked up a copy at the Abingdon booth at SBL, not expecting much from yet another guide to reading Scripture, and could hardly put it down. Here is an example, chosen more or less at random:

Picture an archivist who works at a Hollywood film studio, carefully examining an old black and white film. In my mind's eye, she's using one of those cool monocles, leaning in close over a light table, examining the frames one at a time. This is, in fact, an important thing to do--for an archivist. But it's not what we do when we see a film in a theater. The individual frames pass before a light one at a time, but the mind blends them together into a fluid, moving picture on the screen. Within the mind, an even higher level of blending takes place, so that we're only tacitly aware of the moving pictures; what really makes our brainpans crackle are the plot sequences, the motivations of characters, the frustrations that occur as the plot complicates, the ironic twists, the tricks and traps. We hiss at the villains and admire the heroes; we learn to care about them, and we may even cry when they bite the dust.

When was the last time you cried when you read a biblical story? When was the last time you were surprised or hung on the plot, not breathing until the complications resolved themselves? Such things only happen when we read fluidly.

Jerry Camery-Hoggatt, Reading The Good Book Well: A Guide To Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 205-6.
The guy knows how to write. One gets the sense the book is the product of years of teaching, not something rushed into print to gain tenure. It is chock full of funny and gripping illustrations, as well as crystal clear explanations of complex concepts. I discovered it too late to use as a textbook, but I expect to draw on it liberally in class this semester. My teaching will be the better for it.

There is only one problem: I counted five references to the Old Testament in the whole book, most of which are cited to illustrate a New Testament passage. (I missed a few: The index cites 10 OT books or passages, but compare that to 68 references to the NT.) Camery-Hoggatt is not an actual Marcionite, of course, but the book should probably be subtitled A Guide to New Testament Interpretation or --since the rest of the NT is hardly mentioned--A Guide to the Gospels.

Well, maybe two problems: Perhaps because I'm not as keen on social-scientific approaches, I found myself disagreeing with Camery-Hoggatt's actual examples of interpretation more often than not--but I can live with that in a textbook. More problematic for me because it smashes one of my hot-buttons is Camery-Hoggatt's statement that "rabbinic convictions place theory over pactice" (207). This is simply wrong. It perpetuates negative Christian stereotypes about Judaism and should be edited out of the next edition.

These caveats aside--no books does everything, and I don't want to condemn a book simply for having the wrong title--Reading the Good Book Well is, in many respects, still miles ahead of the competition. I will most likely adopt it as a textbook next year.

3 comments: said...

Thanks for pointing him out, David. His faculty profile that you link to is quite impressive. I'm interested in his fiction too. The profile says that he's working on a novel based upon the Gospel of Mark. I'll have to pick that up when it comes out.

Danny Gamache said...

See what can happen when you buy books! :)

Isaac Gross said...

Just my two cents, but his little metaphor is what we students need. These kind of analogies are entry points for the uninitiated.