Thursday, October 16, 2014

Great teachers and reading

A recurring characteristic of the portraits of "great teachers" in the collection edited by Joseph Epstein is their depth and breadth of knowledge. Consider the following examples:
  • Edmond Wilson on Christian Gauss: "He was wonderful at comparative literature, for his reading had covered the whole of the West--ancient, medieval and modern--and his memory was truly Macaulayan (an adjective sometimes assigned too cheaply). He seemed to be able to summon almost everything he wanted in prose or verse, as if he were taking down the books from the shelf." (6)
  • Sidney Hook on Morris R. Cohen: "If he had read less he surely would have written more, but his reading gave him a stock of information, examples, and anecdotes that made it risky to generalize about anything in a discussion with him." (42)
  • Joseph Gerard Brennan on Harry Austryn Wolfson: "As a student in Wolfson's Aristotle seminar, I sometimes had to look him up in his Widener Library cell, stacked high with books, scrolls, and manuscripts in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic. In Wolfson's own apartment, every available space was packed with books, and sometimes he forgot whether he had stowed a needed volume in the oven or the refrigerator." (57)
  • Lewis S. Feuer on Arthur O. Lovejoy: "[T]here was a mark of the impossible about Lovejoy's historical method. He could preface some observation with the statement "after a lifetime of reading,' but the graduate student, having no such accumulation of memories and notes, felt as helpless as a destroyer ordered to maneuver against a battleship." (127). 
  • George P. Brockway on John William Miller: "In spite of his immersion in the history of philosophy, and although he was awesomely well read in all the humanities and the sciences as well, he was not a scholar in the ordinary sense ..." (159)
  • Jeremy Bernstein on Philipp Frank: "Philipp had almost total recall of everything he had ever learned--to say nothing of entire conversations, some of which had taken place fifty years earlier.... I later discovered that he had a fluent command of French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Czech. He also read Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, and could write in these languages as well." (220-221)
  • John Wain on C.S. Lewis: "During the years when he was growing up, Lewis accepted the study of the Greek and Latin authors as the essential business of his life, and the reading of English authors, of every epoch since the English language made its appearance, as his chief recreation. Nothing that happened to him in his life disturbed this view." (243)
Reading a lot is not the only characteristic of a great teacher, to be sure. You can be learned and a bore. But, in general, great teachers know their stuff.

These descriptions remind me of the comment about painting in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It's easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That's the way all the experts do it." (293)

Works cited:
Epstein, Joseph, ed. Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers. New York: Basic Books, 1981.
Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: Bantam, 1974.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Joseph Epstein on Teaching

"Carried out conscientiously, conducted at a high level, conveyed with proper passion, teaching is an arduous task....[T]here is a sense in which teaching, like opera, is a performing art. Not only must the teacher get up his subject, but he must get it across. There is many a tried, but no true, method for doing this: Socratic teasing, sonorous lecturing, sympathetic discussion; passionate argument, witty exposition, dramatics and other sorts of derring-do; plain power of personal example, main force of intellect, and sometimes even bullying. But these are all matters of technique and vary from one teacher to the next. What all the great teachers appear to have in common is love of their subject, an obvious satisfaction in arousing this love in their students, and an ability to convince them that what they are being taught is deadly serious." - Joseph Epstein, "Introduction" in Joseph Epstein, ed., Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers (New York: Basic Books, 1981), xi-xii.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Zotero Notes

I recently found out two Zotero tips that will save me a lot of time:
  1. To correct capitalization when an entry is imported from, say, Worldcat or Amazon, right click on the title, select "Transform Text" and then "Title Case." HT: Mark Sample.
  2. To keep Zotero from automatically capitalizing German titles in footnotes and bibliographies as if they are English titles, enter "de" under "Language." (For French titles, enter "fr," etc.) HT: Zotero.
  3. Update: A bonus tip: To disable English spell-checking so that foreign-language words aren't highlighted, follow these steps.
To find out more about Zotero and why everyone should use it as their Bibliography manager, see Zotero's home page. My earlier blog posts on Zotero are here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

History 311: Medieval Europe

The Baptism of Clovis

History 311: Medieval Europe 

If you are looking to fill a history elective at Briercrest College this fall, may I recommend HIS311: Medieval Europe? Although I can't help but be a tiny bit biased, I have read the syllabus and talked a lot with the professor about things medieval over the past few months, and I think it will be a great course. You can view the syllabus online here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Law and Faith in Luke-Acts: An Exercise in Stating the Obvious

Any time you study a particular topic you run the risk of skewing its significance. After all, what is central to your thinking must be central to the author you are studying, right? In my study of Luke's understanding of the law of Moses, it has been helpful to step back far enough to notice that although law is important to the narrative argument of Acts, it pales in significance to faith. Consider the following evidence about Jewish Christ-believers and the law:

The early Jewish Jesus movement can be designated as "all those who believe" (Acts 2:44), the "multitude of those who believed" (4:32) or simply as "believers" (5:14). Jewish priests who respond become "obedient to the faith" (6:7), not the law.  Both Jews and Gentiles who join the community are commanded to believe (16:31; cf. 10:43; 19:4; 20:21). By contrast, no passage in Acts enjoins Torah observance on Jews.

Law and faith need not be opposed, as they are in Paul, but this should be clear enough: In Acts faith is a positive requirement for all Christ-believers, while references to the Torah-observance of Jewish Christians are primarily descriptive.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Reading Luke's Silences about Jewish-Christian law observance part 2

Some readers of Acts conclude from Luke's general silence about such things as Sabbath observance and the food laws that Jewish believers were no longer required to keep the laws that distinguished Jews from non-Jews. After all, Paul on trial in Jerusalem claims to believe the law and the prophets (24:14); he does not explicitly say that he observes every jot and tittle. For these readers, the Lukan Paul's silence about Sabbath observance is deafening. When Paul claims not to have violated the law (25:8), we understand him to add under his breath, "...as I interpret it."

Other readers conclude from hints early on in Acts (and in Luke's Gospel!) that Jewish "Christ-believers" are presented as Torah observant. For these readers, Luke's silence about explicit violations of the law confirms not only that Jewish-Christians do keep the law, but that they must. According to Acts, salvation is by faith, of course (Acts 15:11), but just as Gentile Christ-believers are required to keep the terms of the apostolic decree, so Jewish Christians are required to live under the terms of the Mosaic covenant.

When do we conclude a silence is significant? When do we assume Luke expected his readers to take for granted what he did not say?

Two (rather obvious) suggestions: (1) we can be more confident about the function of the law in the story Luke does tell. Silences are secondary. (2) Luke's comments and silences need to be controlled by our understanding of the narrative. A strong case for a particular reconstruction can be made if we can explain how it ties into another of Luke's themes or into the narrative argument of Acts--or both.

Even so, there remains a degree of guesswork, of gap-filling and ambiguity. And at times we must leave gaps unfilled, concluding that Luke simply does not speak to the question. For example:

  • References to the "apostolic decree" in Acts 16:4 and 21:25 indicate that Luke believed the prohibitions against blood and the meat of strangled animals apply to all Gentile Christians everywhere. What would Luke have said about a Gentile believer who continued to indulge in non-Kosher rare steak and the meat of strangled animals?
  • A variation on the same scenario: Imagine an apostate or non-observant Jew who becomes a follower of Jesus. Would Luke's church instruct him to keep the law as well as believe in Jesus?

Obviously, scenarios that Luke does not address can still be useful to think with. They have the potential to shed light on Luke's historical context and his reasons for writing.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Reading Luke's silences about Jewish-Christian law observance

Rover as "sober second thought"
In a previous post I suggested that our unexamined assumptions about the meaning of "salvation" make it more difficult for us to grasp what Luke says about the law. Here I want to consider another reason why the topic of the law in Luke-Acts is so complicated: Every attempt to comprehend what Luke says about the law must account for what he does not say as well as what he does say, and Luke's silences can be read in several different ways.

As I have tried to push for consistency, for an interpretation of Acts that makes sense of all the data, I have found myself offering readings of individual passages that, on sober second thought, seem unsustainable. After multiple attempts to walk away with a solution to the problem of Luke and the law, it dawned on me that  allowing two readings of Luke's silences to sit side-by-side without deciding finally between them is better than a tour de force that forces all the evidence to fit instead of admitting honestly where the difficulties are.

This does not mean that Luke is inconsistent, only that the sense he makes--or the sense that at this point I can make of him--lies somewhere else.