Blogger of the Month for March 2008
Jim West Interviews Ben Myers
Editorial Note: Ben Myers is the author of Faith and Theology at http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/.
JW: Ben, thanks for agreeing to answering some questions for our readers. Let me say, right at the front, that though you are not officially a ‘biblioblogger’, your blog is related to the wider field of Biblical / Theological studies. Is that how you see it as well?
BM: Yes, I think that’s right. Although my main focus is on dogmatic theology, I’m very interested in the relation between theology and exegesis. My own theological thinking has been deeply influenced by the work of biblical scholars like Bultmann, Gerhard von Rad, Ernst Käsemann, and J. Louis Martyn. And on my blog there are occasional skirmishes into biblical studies — for example, my recent posts include an engagement with Mike Bird on the question of the exegetical basis of theology, as well as a theological critique of Gerd Lüdemann’s interpretation of the historical-critical method. So although I’ll only ever be (pardon me, Jim) a dilettante in biblical studies, the blog at least allows me to have conversations with biblical studies specialists, and I’m very grateful for that. Come to think of it, I’m also very glad to see bibliobloggers who are willing to venture a bit of dilettantish engagement with theology! One of the things I like most about the blogosphere is its interdisciplinary ethos, and the way it enables conversations between people from very diverse academic and ecclesial backgrounds.
JW: Tell us about yourself. Where did you study, and what was the topic of your dissertation?
BM: I did my PhD at James Cook University in Australia, with a dissertation on John Milton’s relation to 17th-century theological controversies. Before I got interested in the history of theology, I was really into modern literature — I wrote a short thesis on Samuel Beckett at one stage. And although I ended up doing my doctorate on Milton, I’ve also been obsessed for several years with the work of Karl Barth. So my current postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Queensland is allowing me to spend plenty of time with Barth.
JW: What about your ‘non-academic’ background? And I mean by that, where were you raised and what do your parents do for work? Have you siblings and if so, how many?
BM: I was born at the bottom of the world — Tasmania, that is — but I grew up on the coast of tropical North Queensland. Some of my earliest years were spent living in a beach-front house on Magnetic Island, which is a little island on the Great Barrier Reef. Although these days the island is overrun by sunburnt tourists, at the time it was just a little bohemian community. So my earliest memories include the feeling of sand between my toes, the sound of waves on the shore, the smell of frangipanis, stuff like that. My parents are very cool — they lived simply, Mum baked our bread, Dad cut leather and made our shoes by hand, we split coconuts and picked mangoes from the trees. It was a great way to be a kid.
JW: Tell us a little something about your family.
BM: When I was growing up, there was a very cute girl living in the house next door, and she was in my class at school. After school, she eventually agreed to marry me. We’ve been married for 7 years now, and we’ve got two daughters (5 and 3) and a little baby boy (6 months). With so many people in the house, we’ve started to run out of room — so at the moment we’re turning our home garage into a new study, so that I can work at home.
JW: What is it about theology that fascinates you?
BM: Pretty much everything! I love the audacity of the whole enterprise — a bunch of people sitting around trying to figure out what God is like. It’s a serious business, but it can be pretty comical too. Jorge Luis Borges has a great short story called “The Theologians,” which describes the conflict between an orthodox theologian and a heretic. When these two theologians finally get to heaven, God accidentally confuses them, since he can’t really tell them apart. It’s not a very orthodox story, I guess — but it captures the inherent comedy of theology. If you want to do theology, you need all sorts of prerequisite learning to get you started — but in the end, theology is about making decisions, taking risks, venturing to say something about God.
JW: Have you a personal connection, a faith commitment, in respect to your theology?
BM: Yes, I worship in an Anglican church. I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly zealous churchgoer — I’m not the kind of person who attends extracurricular activities on Wednesday nights. But I think the life of the church — the creed, the Bible reading, the church calendar, the sermon, especially the eucharist — all this provides the basic environment, the atmosphere within which theological reflection takes place. I don’t think it’s really possible to do theology in isolation from the faith of the church.
JW: You have a unique perspective in admiring both Barth and Bultmann. How did this come about?
BM: Yes, I’m very fond of Barth and Bultmann. Initially, it was just by accident that I became interested in both of them. I’d already been reading Bultmann before I ever discovered Barth, so I was never really persuaded by all Barth’s anti-Bultmannian polemics. And later, reading Eberhard Jüngel was a huge influence, since the different trajectories of Barth and Bultmann finally come together in Jüngel’s thought.
JW: Between Barth and Bultmann, which do you admire more?
BM: Hmm. Well, if I had to be stuck with one of them on a desert island, I’d definitely prefer to be stuck with Barth… There’s a largeness, an expansivenessin Barth’s thought that you can’t really find in Bultmann. Bultmann has a very focused concentration on some core insights which are tremendously helpful and important — but Barth’s thought is like another world, it’s a place you can inhabit, and there’s always plenty of room to move around. To put it another way: Bultmann is like a plate of steamed vegetables — it’s good for you, even if you don’t always enjoy it — whereas Barth is a three-course meal.
JW: Speaking of Barth, you’re spending some time this year at Princeton (which is famous for its Barth Archives) at the Center for Theological Enquiry. Tell us about this.
BM: Yes, my family and I will be spending four months of this year in Princeton — we’re arriving in the fall and leaving after Christmas. It’s a terrific place to do research on Barth — Princeton has the three essential ingredients: an astonishing research collection; a group of brilliant scholars and grad students; and a local microbrewery that makes magnificent beer.
JW: What was it that got you into ‘blogging’?
BM: To be honest, I’d never even heard of blogging until Mike Bird told me about it back in 2005 (we were at the same university at the time). I started reading Mike’s blog, then other biblical studies blogs — and I noticed that there were hardly any theological blogs around. So one day, in a moment of idle boredom, I started up my own. I didn’t really plan to keep it going for long, but somehow I’ve just never gotten around to quitting.
JW: Your postings are wide ranging. What do you see as the function of blogging theological topics?
BM: Well, one thing I like about blogging is that the audience is completely self-selecting, so you can just talk about the things that you find interesting. I guess that’s all I do at Faith & Theology — whatever I happen to be thinking about at the moment, whatever new book I’m reading, whatever pops into my head, I just jot it down. But of course there’s a feedback loop as well, since my own interests have also been shaped by the blog’s community of readers. Today, there are books I read and things I think about that never would have even been on my radar before. So although blogging will inevitably tend to have a narcissistic element, in my case at least the discussions on my blog have had a real influence on me, and have expanded my horizons in all sorts of ways.
JW: The recent flap over the remarks of the Archbishop of Canterbury seem to have struck a chord with you. Why do you think this issue is important?
BM: Basically, I think Rowan Williams was right. When he gave that lecture on sharia law, a lot of people reacted by saying that Williams was compromising the secularity of the legal system. But of course Williams was trying to critique precisely this assumption: the assumption that there is some sort of neutral, purely rational secular sphere in which religion plays no role. In fact, the sphere of secular politics and jurisprudence emerged as a specific theological construction, and the secularism which contemporary politicians are so keen to protect is in fact underwritten by some very complex theological assumptions about the nature of human beings, the nature of reason and will, the nature of the Christian church, and so on. (Carl Schmitt famously remarked that “all genuine political theories presuppose man to be evil.”) So anyway, when the media and politicians reacted so vehemently against Rowan Williams’ lecture, I think they were betraying a fundamental lack of understanding about the nature of secularisation and also about the place of religious communities within a pluralistic secular state. As Williams rightly said, when we discuss complex questions of jurisprudence, “theology still waits for us around the corner of these debates.”
JW: On another subject altogether, why is it that Kim Fabricius writes guest posts on your blog but doesn’t run one of his own?
BM: Yeah, I know what you mean! On more than one occasion, I’ve asked Kim if he could become the official “co-author” of Faith & Theology, but he always politely refuses…
JW: Do you imagine your blog morphing into a ‘group blog’ and if so, why, and if not, why not?
BM: Yes, I can imagine it turning into some sort of group blog. At times I’ve even wondered whether I should turn it into a kind of open source book-review journal, where people can post reviews and discuss the latest books and scholarship. I’ve been tremendously impressed by the new blog, The Immanent Frame, which is an absolutely top-notch group blog, featuring posts from some of the world’s most influential scholars, all focusing on the same cluster of questions and problems. That shows how good a group blog can really be. Perhaps the future of scholarly blogging really lies with this kind of group venture.
JW: Which blogs do you read and why?
BM: I subscribe to dozens of different theological and biblical blogs. My favourite at the moment is Inhabitatio Dei — Halden is just astounding, I can’t believe anyone can have so many good thoughts in a single week. So I’ve learned a lot from him, and as I mentioned I’ve also paid a lot of attention to the discussions over at The Immanent Frame. In addition to all the theological blogs which I read, I also follow some blogs just for general interest, e.g. Paternal Life(reflections on parenting), Akram’s Razor (Muslim reflections on American society), and Overheard in New York (for a good laugh).
JW: Can you envision a time when blogging becomes passé, and if so, will you continue to do it or will you move in another direction?
BM: Isn’t it passé already? In any case, I guess I’ll just keep doing it as long as it’s fun. It’s how I relax at the end of the day — a cold beer, a few minutes blogging, a bit of TV.
JW: Why do you think, as an aside, Chris Tilling is so wicked? Do you believe in the doctrine of Total Depravity and if so, do you think Chris falls into this category?
BM: Well, I don’t know about total depravity, but he’s not exactly the imago Deieither…
JW: If you could own one book that you don’t presently own- which would it be?
BM: Hmm, that’s a tough one. I’m hoping to re-read Augustine’s City of God this year, so I’d like to get a new translation of that — probably the nice edition in the “Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought” series. And if I won the lottery, I’d probably try to complete my set of Karl Rahner’s Theological Investigations (boy, that guy did a lot of investigating!).
JW: And finally, tell us something about yourself that will surprise us. Tell us of some hobby or interest that we can’t possibly imagine you enjoying (like Country music or Nascar).
BM: Well, in high school I idolised the grunge singer Kurt Cobain, and at one stage I tried to imitate him by growing my hair long and dyeing it purple. Around the same time, I was the bass player in a grunge-funk band called “Bob’s Funky Mushroom” (lots of “mushrooms,” not much “funk,” I’m afraid). But somehow both me and the band’s lead singer got religion, so now he’s a pastor in Canada and I’m here talking to you…
JW: Thank you, Ben, both for your blog and for your collegiality. And if you’re in Boston, we must have Coffee!
BM: Thanks, Jim. And I do hope to be in Boston for SBL this year.