A few weeks ago, I found myself at Princeton Seminary for the second time in a month, on the occasion of the Karl Barth Conference. I was there to see Moltmann, which did not disappoint. :) But I was also able to hear lectures from a number of scholars across a number of fields, all discussing the theological work of Barth. (Yes, this is nerdy. Yep, I absolutely enjoyed myself.) It’s been a while since I’ve attended a deeply theological conference like that. And it reminded me of a few things.
First, it’s really important to have nerdy expert conferences. It’s not necessarily cool (though, I have to admit, there were far more hipsters at the Barth conference than I could have possibly anticipated) but spending a few days deeply entrenched in thought, listening to experts in the field from varying perspectives, is always life-giving and perspective-clarifying. I hope we always find room to respect this high level of dialogue. More importantly, whatever our field, I hope we find room to cultivate it. GO TO CONFERENCES. And not just the practical ones.
Second, and this is really the point of my post, I remembered something critically important: I am not an expert on the Bible. I am not even a scholar. Yes, I got an M.Div from a really fantastic program, and I trust they taught me well. And yes, I studied both biblical languages. But just to be clear, there is still no possible comparison between what I know and what actual biblical scholars know. Assuming any different is really problematic, if only because it gives me a bloated sense of my own opinion.
There are biblical experts, and I am not one of them, and you probably aren’t either. These scholars see things I miss simply because I have not spent the years studying and doing the same kind of focused work as they do in their field. I left the conference feeling dumber about a number of things (including how much I admittedly don’t know about Barth) and that was a valuable gift. It doesn’t mean I couldn’t follow the conversation or make my own conclusions about the speakers’ remarks. It just means I really respect their level of expertise, while at the same time recognizing honestly that I don’t have it myself.
One of the best ways this came to fruition was in listening to my former professor, Dr. Beverly Gaventa. Admittedly, I’m a fan girl of Dr. Gaventa. She is a Luke-Acts scholar rock star, and she is also an incredibly cool person. She has been working for the past ten years on a commentary on Romans, and I got a very small glimpse into the precision and detailed study of her work in her lecture. I loved her talk, but what I most appreciated seeing was the fruitful result of a lifetime of scholarship. You just cannot overstate the difference that kind of dedication makes.
And, this is going to sound incredibly elitist to say, it is not the same as when we pick up the Bible and read it by our coffee in the mornings. I don’t care if you have a commentary by your side, or a study Bible with notes. For the vast majority of us who do not spend our lives studying the biblical text (and more importantly, the biblical languages), we are operating from a serious handicap of knowing. I don’t think that means we should stop reading our Bibles, or buying those commentaries or study guides. I do think it means we should acknowledge the very real gap of scholarship that exists between our readings and theirs.
When is the last time you dedicated TEN YEARS to the scholastic study of one book of the Bible?
Yeah, me neither.
This idea of expertise has been rattling around in my head in various forms for the past year or so, as I’ve watched many Americans on social media insist upon the centrality of their opinions despite having no education, experience, or expertise which should give me any reason to listen. I realize that sounds a bit harsh. I think perhaps at this stage in the juncture, we could all use a little harsh. If we can’t even understand the limitations of our own opinions, how will we ever cultivate better ones?
I know for many people, being confronted with experts (and consequently, the realization that they are not among them) can create defensiveness and backlash. I suggest instead we consider going with appreciation and wonder.
I didn’t feel stupid in a bad way when listening to Dr. Gaventa. I felt honored, and so appreciative of the work she does every day when the rest of us are bingeing on Netflix. (I hope she binges, too, on occasion…) I felt grateful for the gift of wonder she gave me through her understanding of Scripture. She opened up life for me in that lecture, as did the others, because her perspective is not something she randomly decided to spout off on her Facebook feed. It came the only way that kind of deep knowing can: through dedication, and focus, and years and years of practice.
It’s not unlike the awe I feel when watching Olympians, or professional athletes. Or admiring the work of painters and photographers and writers. They have honed their craft and studied vigorously and failed along the way and we are all the better for it.
So, by all means, let’s read our Bibles and have some opinions about it. But let’s not forget to remember often that there are actual experts out there, who have spent their careers studying the minutiae of ancient languages and culture and historical criticism, all within the framework of dedicated faith. And we would all do well to listen to the wisdom they have to give us.
**Note: Dr. Gaventa’s amazing commentary on Romans isn’t yet finished. I think I heard it is coming out next year. You should plan to get it.
***Note: If you want to read more on this, here’s a great article on the Death of Expertise.