Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stumbling into the goldmine

When I was writing my dissertation, my third chapter was devoted to trying to develop a set of definitions and a methodology for examining "the Bible" as both a "linguistic" object (what often gets referred to as the "text" - meaning the intangible ideas "contained" in a book) as well as a physical object (the other, conflated meaning for the word "text").

It took me over eighty pages, and the apparatus was unwieldy at best. Part of the problem was that I was trying to develop, and import, a whole mode of analysis that is very alien to the weltanschauung of contemporary theological studies. In previous generations, theologians were as much text critics as they were proto-philosophers [1]. A survey of the works of Calvin, Luther, Barth and other notables shows as much biblical commentary and exegesis as it does attempts at systematic theologies (and often more so). In the last thirty years, however, a divide has opened between the practice of Christian theology and the practices of exegesis and textual criticism. My chapter was an attempt to "work backward" through this divide, and even beyond and beneath it, to recover a sense (if, indeed, it ever existed) of the importance of the "book-ness" of the Bible. The physical presence of the printed object was and is, I argued, theologically relevant and indispensable.

But I didn't know how to talk about that insight in a simple or straightforward way. Indeed, in many ways I am still working on that very problem (hence attempts, such as the postings on this blog, to address the issue repeatedly in the hopes of improvement).

So I am happy to report a discovery that is going to help this quest considerably.

During a recent visit to the University of Virginia, I had the pleasure of meeting professor of English and book historian David Vander Meulen, and of being introduced to the UVA Rare Book School, housed in the basement of their library [2]. I cannot put into adequate words what has now become available to my scholarship.

In the first place, Dr. Vander Meulen made me aware that the methodologies and vocabulary I have been struggling to invent and grapple with already, to large extent, exist. In the work of bibliographers and book historians, the "grammar" for reading books as physical objects exists and can be learned. The hour I spent speaking with Dr. Vander Meulen was an absolute revelation. Not only was I ecstatic to discover another scholar who was as as excited about the "archaeology of printing" as I was, but I was also shown a series of syllabi and monographs that point the direction to the answers I need.

These monographs were written by Dr. Vander Meulen's mentor, G. Thomas Tanselle - widely recognized as the preeminent American scholar of bibliography and book history.

The Rare Book School has available a wide selection of these works by Tanselle. Upon my return from Charlottesville I ordered several (as well as two DVD's on book production - because I am a total nerd), and the box arrived a few days ago.

I just finished reading Tanselle's "Sol M. Malkin Lecture in Bibliography," entitled Libraries, Museums and Reading, delivered in 1990 to the Columbia University School of Library Science. I am absolutely blown away. In thirty-one pages he clarifies several of the questions with which I spent all those chapter pages wrestling and grappling. Though his focus is not on biblical interpretation, I can easily see how many of his insights will be directly applicable to the project of Material Scripture and my research. I am absolutely ecstatic.

I need to read the lecture again, and study it more closely, before I can adequately express to you the connections I see. I hope, as the summer progresses, to bring several of these insights into the blog and talk about the lecture piece by piece. I think that would be the most profitable approach.

For now, however, let me lift out this one quotation:
Scholars who concentrate on the transmission of texts - that is, textual critics and editors - have often been misunderstood by other scholars, their work greeted condescendingly as if, however basic, it lacks the intellectual challenges of supposedly more creative historical and critical scholarship. What editors actually do is to read the documents (what else could they do?), trying to read all the evidence these objects have to offer and assessing it critically. The process of criticism does not begin when a literary critic or a philosopher takes up a text provided by an editor; it begins with the editor's own work, which reflects an attitude toward all the issues that critics confront. But editors' work suffers in the eyes of many scholars from the taint of the physical: work involving physical evidence is thought to be mechanical and objective, in contrast to the higher critical powers required to deal with the intangible intellectual product. The body has been chosen rather than the soul [pp. 27-28, underlined emphasis mine].

I could not agree more with this analysis. Translating it into my own project, let me gloss the quotation thus: "The process of [biblical and theological] criticism does not begin when a [theologian] takes up a text provided by an editor [and a publishing staff]; it begins with the editor [and publisher]'s own work, which reflects an attitude [and a set of theological and community commitments] toward all the issues that [theologians] confront."

Nearly all the 340 pages of the dissertation were trying to build toward an insight such as this. Here, in Tanselle's work, I find a scholar who has done much of the methodological development (with which I have been fumbling these past several years) to help me more elegantly frame and ground these suspicious intuitions I have had about Bibles and theology.

Though Tanselle and I are ultimately interested in a different set of questions, I am very encouraged that this overlap exists where we have come upon a problem with a similar trajectory. I have no doubt that Tanselle's insights (and indeed, the work of book historians like David Vander Meulen and others) will prove invaluable not only to Material Scripture, but to related projects such as the Syracuse Iconic Books center.

I feel like it's my birthday. I can't wait to read more.

[1] For an excellent example of this, consider D. Moody Smith's The Composition and Order of the Fourth Gospel: Bultmann's Literary Theory, in which Smith demonstrates how Bultmann reconstructed and re-edited the Johannine text to fit a trajectory of theological assumptions that he considered to be more "original" than the textual evidence currently available in ancient manuscripts and fragments, in effect creating a "new" and heretofore unseen Gospel of John. My thanks to my colleague Jimmy Barker for bringing this example to my attention.

[2] My thanks to Rebecca Rine, Ben Maton, Scott Yakimow, and Luke S.H. Wright for these introductions.

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