Thursday, April 27, 2006

Two nights ago, I attended a lecture/debate featuring Richard Hays and Bart Ehrman. They used The DaVinci Code as a jumping off point to discuss the classic issues of biblical scholarship: whether the Gospels tell us anything reliable about Jesus, whether the Church has suppressed all but the "orthodox" views of Jesus, whether text corruptions have obscured what we can know about the authors' intent.

Although I learned nothing new in terms of content--I am familiar (to put it mildly) with both scholars' work, and NT studies will form a significant part of my dissertation research--I did learn a lot about holding such events.

First of all, the room was packed out, standing room only, in the biggest lecture hall the Divinity School has. (We moved to the new Chapel, which was also too small, but I don't think we were supposed to. Don't tell anyone.) Five hundred-odd community people came to hear two scholars debate on the technical details of biblical scholarship. Who'd'a thunk it?

Two, the debaters clearly had fun doing this--and their enjoyment was contagious. They cracked jokes (often at each other's expense, but not in a vicious way), they ruthlessly mocked Dan Brown, they put their whole selves into making their points. It was lively. Imagine that--scholarly debate. Lively.

Three, I really admired Hays's debating style. While he wasn't afraid to toss a well-aimed dart or two (the first audience questioner asked, "From the flyer, I thought we were going to talk about The DaVinci Code, not all this Bible stuff. Why aren't we talking about The DaVinci Code?" and Hays's response was, "Because it's not worth talking about!"), he made a point of speaking about his debating partner with profound respect. While it was clear that they had some serious disagreements on substantive issues, he would make a point, again and again, to highlight commonalities. ". . . And I know this is where Bart and I agree." "I want to highlight the importance of what Bart just said about . . ." At one point: "This is a lot like a presidential debate, in that there's never enough time for the candidates to tell you what they really think about an issue. Of course, the major difference is that Bart and I actually want to tell you what we really think about these issues." In fact, he came off rather better than Ehrman in this respect.

He was able somehow to combine vigorous and actual disagreement with respect in a way that I almost never see done (or done well). Never once . . . well, ok, except for when he talked about Dan Brown. . . did he display any of that pseudo-scholarly snobbery that passes for intellectualism in some circles. He answered unsophisticated questions with grace and gentleness. ("Why can't we just believe that the Gospel writers saw this all in a vision? Why do we have to think they had sources?" "Well, I'd want to focus on the claims that the text makes for itself, and no NT test except Revelation claims to be received in a visionary experience. The author of Luke tells us that he has done research and listened to eyewitness accounts. I think we should take the author's claims for himself seriously when we talk about how he might have written his texts. That doesn't at all discount visionary experiences--but it respects the text a little better, I think.")

It would be worth my while to practice this kind of graceful argument. It's certainly not one of my natural strengths.

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