Thursday, December 29, 2022

Luke Timothy Johnson Shoots the Moon

In the final two chapters of his memoir, Luke Timothy Johnson describes what it takes to be an excellent (and productive) scholar, someone with the requisite raw-material—intelligence, rapid reading fluency, memory—who is increasingly characterized by the intellectual virtues of curiosity, respect for evidence, mastery, wide and critical reading, imagination, clarity and cogency, and by the moral virtues of courage, ambition, discipline, persistence, detachment, contentment, and (surprisingly) multitasking. 

Mastery for mature scholars of "New Testament and Christian origins" begins with "comprehensive knowledge of the content and rhetorical character of each OT and NT writing" as well as "a firsthand grasp of all the critical questions concerning those compositions." Mastery also entails "appropriate interaction with all of Greco- Roman literature, Jewish literature, and early Christian literature at least to the time of Constantine":

"The mature scholar ought to be as comfortable with the Sentences of Sextus as with the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, with the Pirqe Avot and the Avot of Rabbi Nathan as with the Sifre on Deuteronomy, with the varieties of Jewish mysticism as with the hermetic literature, with Epictetus as with Plutarch, with the Didache as with Dionysius the Areopagite."

Nor is it sufficient to know the text themselves. The evidence that a scholar must respect includes "the entire history of interpretation."

Among the moral virtues, ambition—"not in the competitive sense of seeking to outdo others but in the sense of desiring excellence"—is "the 'motor' that pushes the scholar to significant accomplishment."

Also essential is contentment, the "freedom from a scholarly possessiveness manifested by obsessiveness, compulsiveness, and perfectionism":

"[I]f my identity and worth are not to be identified with my scholarship, then what I research and write can freely and generously be shared with others. As in other areas of life, so in scholarship: liberality and even prodigality reveal a freedom that is the opposite of a cramped perfectionism driven by anxiety, that only with great reluctance shares with others what I have discovered or crafted."

Few contemporary New Testament scholars can match Johnson's scholarly productivity. His autobiography makes it clear that his was no charmed ivory-tower existence: he wrote 35 books and 75 scholarly articles while being actively involved in university life and supporting family through significant personal adversity. Although Johnson peppers his account of the scholarly virtues with examples from his own life, he is at pains to insist that the final two chapters are not a self-portrait but an ideal to which he aspired in his "long career as a scholar." Besides, his abilities and the opportunities that came his way are in fact gifts from God.

For those with ears to hear, the memoir as a whole can serve as motivation for those just starting out, or a kick in the pants for academics mid-career.

Still, I came away with a few questions:

  • First, what if the pursuit of scholarly excellence conflicts with the ultimate goal—the goal Johnson identifies as his own—of becoming a saint? For ordinary mortals who don't possess Johnson's natural ability and rigorous training, and who perhaps lack his ambition, enormous industry and audacity, life may be more of a zero sum game where energy expended in scholarly production comes at the expense of other important things—one's family, for instance. At the very least, there is a temptation to cheat, to sacrifice those other important things instead of making room for both.
  • Second, there are other competing models of life before God and of scholarship that emphasize the virtue of moderation. (See, for example, the slow work movement, and its application to the academy in Berg and Seeber's The Slow Professor.) Is the only option for real scholars such enormous effort? Perhaps.
  • Third, middle-aged me questions Johnson's definition of scholarship as "an intellectual life that is both focused and productive" because productivity tends to be defined in terms of scholarly publications. Is productivity in this sense really the mark of a scholar? To be fair, Johnson does not simply equate the two:

"By productive, I mean that such learning gained by the mind is communicated to others, or is applied to the solution of other problems, with an eye to eventual communication, through teaching, writing, or other medium."

Insofar as productivity is reduced to publication (by Johnson's readers if not by Johnson himself) I suspect infection by the diseased bureaucratic drive to quantify everything.

To be sure, "[w]hen personal goals are insignificant, accomplishments will fall even shorter." Point taken. But most of those who aim high—even those who publish extensively—do not in fact succeed at producing anything that more than a few people read, as Johnson admits. What is the point of it all anyway? The vast majority of people have their most lasting impact not through what they write but through personal contact over time.

Questions aside, the story is interesting and well-told, and there is much to learn from, and to be challenged by, Johnson's example. Highly recommended! (If you listen to the audiobook, as I did, you get the added bonus of hearing Johnson narrate the book himself.)


Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Luke Timothy Johnson on Not Wasting Time

"My first and most persistent goal in life was to become a saint .... In my own stumbling and clumsy fashion, I find that I truly do seek the face of God. Scholarship, like all other human endeavors, has always seemed to me secondary to the serious business of becoming a certain kind of person; scholarship is a game that can be played, and must be played, seriously and intently, with the scholar never forgetting that it is only a game, whose stakes are not ultimate." 

"Sowing seeds by scattering them in every direction means much waste, and yes, the sower seldom actually sees whether any of the sown seed yields a crop. But I would not trade the hours I spent in preparing and presenting all this array of words for any other task I might have been assigned. As I gladly learned, so gladly did I teach."

"As for properly scholarly writing and publication, I am acutely aware how few minds I have changed or improved. I know, in fact, that some of my views are regarded by many other scholars as wrongheaded or eccentric. But I am also aware that I never stinted in the effort to make a difference in how important issues are understood. I know that I have employed the gifts God has given me—a modest intelligence, a wealth of energy, a passion for truth and beauty—as fully as time and circumstances have allowed. I have never wasted time, and I have never allowed circumstances to be an excuse for less than full effort. I have pursued truth as I have seen it. With that realization, I must be content." 

- Luke Timothy Johnson, The Mind in Another Place: My Life as a Scholar (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022), 31, 267.

Luke Timothy Johnson has been a formative influence and sparing partner in my thinking about Luke-Acts for years, I'm a sucker for academic biographies anyhow, so no surprise that I find Johnson's memoir stimulating in all sorts of ways. Challenging too. Highly recommended for anyone interested in biblical scholarship (or biblical scholars) even if you disagree, as I do, with Johnson on various points.