Chris Heard (3/06)

Blogger of the Month for March 2006

Brandon Wason Interviews Christopher Heard

Editorial Note: Chris Heard is the author of the weblog Higgaion athttp://www.heardworld.com/higgaion/.

BB: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview, Chris. Your blog is one of the best and always intriguing to read.

CH: Thank you. That’s very kind of you to say.

BB: How did you first become interested in academic biblical studies, and the Hebrew Bible in particular?

CH: My road to academic biblical studies starts in the church, and I make no apologies for coming at biblical studies from a faith-inspired orientation. I was born into a Christian, churchgoing family and learned to care about the Bible basically from infancy. An interest in and, indeed, love for the Bible has stuck with me through the years, even though I look at the Bible much differently now than my Sunday school teachers might prefer. I always knew, without question or hesitation, that I’d be an active volunteer in my church when I grew up, but I didn’t entertain the idea of professional biblical studies until later in my undergraduate days. I started my undergraduate degree intending to become a lawyer and a politician, but under both positive influences (from friends, admired professors, and most of all my then-fiancee, now wife, Rene) and negative influences (from other students with pre-law intentions) my interests shifted first to academic study of human communication, then to academic study of the Bible. At one point my wife and I intended to become missionaries, but for various logistical reasons that never materialized. I think the actual course of events has all been for the good.

My interest in Hebrew Bible was fueled almost by accident. Simply put, I loved my first-year Hebrew class and hated my first-year Greek class. By the end of first-year Greek, I was stumbling my way through some vocabulary, paradigms, and sample sentences from Machen’s classic teaching grammar–and I admired my professor’s knowledge but was turned off by his abrasiveness and aloofness. By the end of first- year Hebrew the next year, I had a solid beginning vocabulary and was reading Jonah and Ruth without difficulty–and though my professor wasn’t a well-known scholar, and hadn’t finished his Ph.D. yet, he was helpful and personable. A few other courses cinched the deal. At one point I very seriously considered focusing on Hellenistic Jewish literature, but Hebrew, as opposed to Greek, just exerted too strong of a pull.

BB: How did you end up at Pepperdine University? And is there a more beautiful campus anywhere else?

CH: About three years ago, Rick Marrs (who studied Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern materials with Jim Roberts at Johns Hopkins years ago) was promoted from being chair of Pepperdine’s Religion Division to Associate Dean. His promotion created an opening for an Old Testament scholar and teacher on Pepperdine’s faculty. For the previous five years I had been teaching at Milligan College in northeast Tennessee, just outside Johnson City. Milligan is associated with the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, a “kissing cousin” to my own heritage in Churches of Christ, but Pepperdine is firmly within my branch of that tradition. The opportunity to move to Pepperdine let me step “up” to a more prestigious university with a slightly lighter teaching load, and “over” to be more closely aligned with my religious heritage.

The Pepperdine campus is indeed beautiful, and I wouldn’t quibble with anyone who claimed it was the most beautiful campus anywhere. There’s a moment in my commute where I come around a bend in Malibu Canyon Road and see the Pacific Ocean stretched out before me, and it never fails to give me a little thrill (except on the hazy days when I can’t actually see the water). My family and I quickly fell in love with the Pacific coast. Yet I have to say that Pepperdine’s beauty can actually get a little boring, in the sense that it’s the same beauty all year round. In March, when the Tennessee dogwoods are blooming, in October, when the leaves on the Tennessee oaks and maples are turning, and around Christmas, when Tennessee lawns are blanketed with snow, I really miss Milligan’s campus and my family’s twice-yearly day hikes on the Appalachian Trail.

BB: What led you to begin a blog?

CH: It’s really not so much a “what” as a “who,” and that would be Jim West. My interactions with Jim on an e-mail discussion group led me to his blog (which I still read several times daily, despite bewildering name and template changes), which led me to other “biblioblogs,” as they’ve come to be called. I realized that blogging provided an opportunity for interacting with a wider community of scholars and interested persons, so I took the plunge.

BB: What have you found to be the advantages and disadvantages of blogging?

CH: The advantage to me is that when I have something to say, I can say it, and those who care can listen and respond. As I mentioned before, the main value to me is in communicating with friends new and old about topics of mutual interest. At times blogs can seem sort of like parallel monologues, so it’s an interesting kind of communication medium. One of the things I really like about blogs is that scholars, graduate students, and interested non-specialists interact in the blogosphere with a free and nonhierarchical exchange of ideas; there is no “pulling rank” or, usually, flouting of credentials. If nothing else, it’s a way for me to think out loud, but the “democratization” of academic discourse in the blogosphere also creates a sense of responsibility and accountability that I don’t always feel when dealing with my own students, who are far more likely to “take my word for it” even if I encourage them not to do that. The primary disadvantage to blogging is that it’s one more thing on my “to do” list.

BB: What blogs do you read the most and find helpful?

CH: The “blogroll” on Higgaion lists the blogs to which I have subscribed RSS feeds, and I read the new entries daily, usually first thing in the morning. It’s almost like a “mental warm-up,” helpful to me because I don’t drink coffee except at church (because they keep the building so cold), and even then it’s decaf. The academic-type blogs that I look forward to most are–in no particular order–those by Jim West, Joe Cathey, Tyler Williams, Ken Ristau, Kevin Edgecomb, Tim Bulkeley, Duane Smith, and Claude Mariottini. There are several others that I read regularly, and which are good, but which lie farther away from my direct interests (Jim Davila’s and Stephen Carlson’s are good examples) I also follow a number of personal blogs by former students and old friends; these aren’t necessarily listed on my blogroll.

BB: For those left in the dark, what is this minimalist/maximalist debate about, and on which side of it do you stand? Why?

CH: There’s no way to answer this question in short order without oversimplifying, so please apply all appropriate caveats and disclaimers to this terribly reductive answer. I should also say explicitly that “minimalist” and “maximalist” are not especially felicitous terms, but for the moment they’re what we have. Perhaps I could offer the terms “cautious” and “confident” instead. I must also stress that these terms almost suggest that there are two “camps,” when there are really more like multiple positions on a spectrum. Indeed, even the spectrum metaphor is too two-dimensional, but if I worry too much about that, I’ll never get around to answering your question.

The debate centers on the value of biblical narratives as evidence in historical reconstructions of the times and places in which the storylines of those narratives are set. Do the biblical stories about David and Solomon, for example, provide any kind of reliable historical information about petty kingdoms in the Cisjordanian hill country of the tenth century BCE? Scholars near the “maximalist” or “confident” end of the spectrum tend to affirm the historical accuracy of the biblical narratives unless there is, in their view, a convincing argument to be made against that accuracy in a particular case. The default assumption for a “maximalist” is that biblical narratives “tell it like it was.” Scholars near the “minimalist” or “cautious” end of the spectrum tend to doubt the historical accuracy of the biblical narratives unless there is, in their view, a convincing argument to be made in favor of that accuracy in a particular case. The default assumption for a “minimalist” is that biblical narratives cannot be assumed to “tell it like it is,” but that any such claim must be shown to be the case.

In this debate I am, of course, a moderate centrist. I have learned from politicians that moderate centrism is always the way to go. Seriously, I would not accept either label for myself. I tend to have a great deal of sympathy with “minimalist” methodological sensibilities, especially when it comes to corroborating archaeological findings with biblical narratives. In my judgment, biblical scholars and even archaeologists themselves often over- ramify archaeological data in a zeal to correlate them with biblical narratives–to say nothing of the sensationalist spin that the popular press can put on a frankly relatively insignificant item like the Tell es-Safi ostracon publicized in the summer of 2005. I’m also sympathetic to “minimalist” arguments that “maximalists” may be making serious genre mistakes when reading biblical narratives for historical information. On the other hand, I think that any wholesale, a priori rejection of the use of biblical narratives for historical reconstruction–whether on genre grounds, theological grounds, or what have you–is ill-founded and runs just as big a risk of under-ramifying the evidence as “maximalists” run of over- ramifying the evidence. There is simply no good reason to believe that biblical narratives cannot provide, whether purposefully or incidentally, accurate historical information about the times and places they describe, and this can be true even if the storylines happen to feature fictional or heavily fictionalized characters. I would say that a critical assessment of all possible sources of evidence–and I would include biblical narratives in this category of “possible sources of evidence”–with judicious weighing thereof can be fruitful in historical reconstruction. Methodologically, when it comes to issues of “proof,” I tend to look rather “minimalistic,” but the truth is that I tend to trust the biblical narratives a lot more than my methodology really allows.

BB: Would you catch us up to speed on your views of creationism and intellegent design from the perspective of an OT scholar?

CH: That’s another big question requiring, for present purposes, a pretty short answer. I’ve blogged extensively about these topics and would mostly refer readers to the Higgaion archives, but I’ll try to summarize a few major points here. As an academic student of the Tanakh, I clearly see that “creation faith”–crediting the God of Israel with the creation and sustenance of the cosmos–is very important in scripture, and as a Christian, I agree with that emphasis theologically. At the same time, I am much too well aware of the variety within biblical creation faith, and the many points of contact between biblical creation faith and creation faith in other ancient Near Eastern contexts from Egypt to Mesopotamia, to try to take any biblical creation text “literally” in the sense of making them precise descriptions of “what happened.” The biblical stories are just too varied for that. On that exegetical basis, I reject “creationism,” or attempts to turn biblical creation narratives into literal statements of scientific fact.

I also accept the near-unanimous testimony of scientists that the Big Bang model and the neo-Darwinian synthesis of evolutionary theory provide exceedingly robust explanations of observable natural phenomena, and I don’t believe that either the universe or the scientists are lying to us. I appreciate the efforts of “gap creationists,” “day-age creationists,” and other varieties of “old- earth creationists” to respect both the geological and fossil records and the biblical creation texts, but I don’t think these efforts are ultimately satisfactory from either an exegetical or a scientific point of view. As a Christian with a biblically-contoured faith, I am theologically driven to insist that the Judeo-Christian God should get credit for creation; as a thinking, rational, reasonably well-informed non-scientist I am convinced that virtually everything since the Big Bang can be explained by natural sequences of cause and effect. In my judgment, giving God credit for the Big Bang (including all of the properties of the singularity that produced the “bang,” which may even include creating the singularity ex nihilo), satisfies both my theological commitments and the physical evidence. My friends on the floor below me in Pepperdine’s Natural Science Division tell me that this approach is shared by the vast majority of research scientists who are also Christian believers.

The previous paragraph might seem to imply that I would be sympathetic to notions of “intelligent design,” but that depends on what you mean by “intelligent design.” I do in fact believe that the cosmos, or at least the principles that produced the cosmos as we know it, was intelligently designed, by the Judeo-Christian God, before it ever existed. In fact, I believe that it was so well designed that, once it was launched on its course of becoming, it required no large-scale physical or material “course corrections” in order for it to achieve God’s creative intent. Howard van Till calls this “head design,” in distinction from “hand design,” or the idea that God actively intervened at certain points in the development of the universe to create new material structures (usually biochemical or biological) that could not have emerged “naturally” in the course of the universe’s development from the point of the Big Bang onward. This latter type of design, “hand design,” is implicit in the “Intelligent Design movement” (represented especially by the Discovery Institute) that has gotten so much press lately, especially in relation to public school curricula. My friends who are biologists and physicists insist that the “Intelligent Design movement” literature has nothing to commend it scientifically, and in conjunction with my own reading I believe that testimony is correct. The “Intelligent Design movement” promotes a view of occasional “hand design” on special occasions, necessary to produce certain “irreducibly complex” structures. Yet the “Intelligent Design movement” literature steadfastly avoids explaining the mechanism by which such interventions occurred, and many of the structures claimed to be “irreducibly complex” turn out not to be so. Moreover, and more important theologically, in an effort to be “scientific,” the “Intelligent Design movement” does not attribute similar interventions of “hand design” to those biological structures that are clearly not irreducibly complex. The “designer” of the “Intelligent Design” movement thus is a “god of the gaps,” and with every new discovery, the “gaps” shrink. Thus, while I do in fact think the universe was “designed” by God, I do not agree either theologically or scientifically (as far as I understand the issues) with the “Intelligent Design movement’s” version of “design” or their attempts to depict such as an “alternative to” or “critique of” modern scientific understandings of biological evolution.

BB: I see that you have a number of sites that are not related to biblical studies; tell us about your hobbies.

CH: My hobbies tend to be fairly cerebral, focusing mostly on collectible card games, role-playing games, and strategy board games. I’ve loved board games as long as I can remember, from playing checkers with my grandpa when I was a kid to complicated all-night sessions of Diplomacy with my high school and college friends. I was introduced to role-playing games in sixth grade, and have enjoyed them ever since, though after college I went on a long role-playing hiatus. In the early 1990s I got interested in collectible card games when the first edition of the Star Trek CCG was introduced. I’ve maintained the interest in CCGs pretty consistently since then, and recently added Anachronism to my short list (two items long) of CCGs I play regularly and support with web sites. I’ve also recently come back to RPGs, both as something I do with my seven-year-old son and with a group of my adult friends.

When it’s not football (NFL) season, there are only three television shows I watch regularly: 24Lost, and Battlestar Galactica24 is a standard “date show” that my wife and I watch together, and I tend to download Lost and Battlestar Galactica from the iTunes Music Store (in fact, “Maternity Leave,” a recent episode of Lost, is playing in my iTunes as I type this). I prefer “action” and “suspense” movies, though I usually watch them at home on DVD rather than in theaters. I’m especially partial to science fiction and superhero movies. When I “read” novels for fun, they are usually actually audiobooks playing on my PDA during my commute to and from work, in which case I tend to favor mysteries.

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