Monday, June 02, 2014

Of making many books there is no end

How many commentaries does the (evangelical) world need on, say, the Gospel of John?

This week I have been writing up some material on 1 Peter and the start of a paper on Galatians. It seems to me that within Christian circles we have a tendency to push a certain kind of production, which has unintended consequences.

That production is that we train people to do exegesis. Quite rightly! We want people to be able to read and analyse texts for themselves. We want ministry staff to do it well. We want educational professionals to do it very well. And we want everyday Christians to do it responsibly. So we teach people exegesis.

At the same time we are training preachers to preach expositionally (well, we should be). So in any given week around the globe thousands of hours are being spent in 'exegesis' and sermon-production. This, I want to say, is a good thing. It means people are engaging and reading the text of the Bible with precision and care. It means live preachers are preparing fresh sermons to deliver in live contexts before real congregations.

This is not really good for the publishing world though. While not all preachers are writers, the fact is that a good commentary could be read by millions of people. And most decent commentaries will cover a lot of the same ground. And we are training people to do exegesis, which means they most naturally know how to write exegesis. And our publishing industry, at least the small niche that is evangelical academics, treats producing a major exegetical commentary as a major milestone. But do we really need more and more? Especially when sales are largely going to be driven by external factors - the reputation of the series it's published in, the fame of the author, the promotion of the publishing house?

I like to think that good quality material will just filter its way to the top, but this is simply not true. You could write the world's finest commentary, publish an e-version, and no one would ever know. We live in an age of massive information production, and there is a challenge of filtering to work out "what's worth reading", yet even as we do that, it's an age of mass-distribution which means some works will be transmitted incredibly widely, and other works that may well be of outstanding quality will simply disappear into oblivion.

I don't have any answers here, I'm just raising questions. I don't even have any suggestions. Except that more scholarly evangelicals need to read serious commentaries on the Old Testament. There is a real lacuna there.

What are your thoughts on this topic?


gbroughto said...

In the 80s (before your time) the "Manuscript Discovery" movement grew out of the same disatisfaction. It refocussed evangelical attention on the text of Scripture rather than defaulting to commentaries but it also ended in dead end of anti-intellectualism that ignored good scholarship.

I think that the recognition that "good" exegesis is always situated locally (Barth's bible & newspaper) helps here.

Seumas Macdonald said...

There was still some Manuscript Discovery kicking around in the mid 90s. I don't think I was ever subjected to it, it would make me rage with frenzy.

Good point about the localisation of exegesis.