Evolutionary biologists tell us that in the natural world, all species find niches in the ecosystem and that these niches establish the way that each species will relate with all the other species around it. In nature, niches make interaction possible. Contemporary sociologists tell us that modern thought has led human communities–including those communities of scholars that we might otherwise call “disciplines”–to niche together as a way of avoidinginteractions with other communities. Instead, people within niches speak primarily to people in the same niche. In culture, niches inhibit interactions.
@ This Point tries to avoid cultural niches. Since we founded @ This Point eight years ago, one of the things that we’ve always been proud of and worked hard to ensure is that the journal was interdisciplinary. In all our earlier editions, we’ve chosen topics that were clearly meant to be approached from a range of perspectives. Moreover, in all our earlier editions, we’ve benefitted from the wisdom of scholars within a range of disciplines in theological education: theology, pastoral care, biblical studies, ethics, congregational studies, education, preaching and worship, etc. And they’ve always told me that they’ve benefitted from a format that mandates them talking across niches.
So it was with some anxiety that we chose a topic–new approaches to biblical studies–that leaned so heavily into a single discipline. And it was with even greater anxiety that we invited essays from scholars who not only teach and write within the same broad discipline (biblical studies), but who are all Old Testament scholars.
Even a quick read through their essays, though, will reveal that our anxiety was misplaced. As the essays make clear, critical, careful, and faithful biblical scholarship happens best precisely where it incorporates theology, history, contemporary demographics, sociology, literary theory, and a broad cultural consciousness that is alert to a greater range of voices rather than a few authoritative ones.
Thus, in his lead essay, Columbia Theological Seminary’s Assistant Professor of Old Testament, Brennan Breed, introduces us to the complexity of interpreting scripture in three “worlds:” the world behind the text, the world of the text, and–especially for Breed, at least–the world in front of the text. Along the way, he changes our question from “What does this text mean?” to “What has this text done?” In the face of far too many far too simple and far too destructive claims about the meaning of texts, that change is not only refreshing, but deeply enriching and provocative, promising new insights from which the contemporary church will profoundly benefit.
And, if anything, his respondents simultaneously challenge him (and us) to think further about the implications–including the costs–of that change and also invite him (and us) to think more widely still. Columbia Seminary’s Prof. Bill Brown brings us an analogy from the natural sciences to introduce his essay while also highlighting the inextricability of text and context. And wife-and-husband duo Nyasha Junior (Howard University) and Jeremy Schipper (Temple University) call on Prof. Breed–and all of us–to attend to the social location of the most recent interpreters even as they provide wisdom and critical insights of their own.
Add to all this Prof. Breed’s thoughtful reply to Brown, Junior, and Schipper (not to mention a wonderful set of lessons from Columbia Seminary senior Lisle Gwynn Garrity) and we get a fascinating and meaningful vision not so much of the value of interdisciplinary conversation as the mandate for interdisciplinarity within conversations. By observing their conversation, maybe we also catch a glimpse of the very approach that Breed and his colleagues commend: being attentive to many contexts, to many voices, and to the way God spoke and continues to speak through texts.