John Hobbins (6/08)

Blogger of the Month for June 2008

Brandon Wason Interviews John Hobbins


Editorial Note: John Hobbins authors the Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog at http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/.

BW: Tell us a little about yourself, John. Where were you born and raised?

JH: I was born in Tacoma Washington at the foot of Mt. Rainier. My Dad was in the Army at the time, stationed at Ft. Lewis. He was an MP, so we moved around a lot when I was a tot. I was raised in Madison WI, the Berkeley of the Midwest, the oldest of five children. I am thankful for the liberal upbringing I was given. The one and only film my father took me to see as a teenager was Woodstock. The high school I attended was in effect a lab school of the University of Wisconsin. I had a dramatic conversion experience to the Christian faith at age 13, but most of my friends growing up were Jewish and/or Unitarian. For that reason, I’m still more at ease in a room full of smart agnostics than I am in a room full of fellow Bible-thumpers.

BW: It says on your site that you and your wife are both ordained in the Waldensian Church. How did you get involved with the Waldensian Church, and what sort of activities does your ministry entail?

JH: My professors in college encouraged me to do graduate work in Northwest Semitic languages in Europe. By that they meant Germany or England. However, one summer as an undergraduate, I fell head over heels for a flaming redhead who introduced me to all things Italian, particularly art and lit. She dumped me by the end of the summer – a good move on her part – but she left me that gift.

So, when one of my mentors, Menachem Mansoor, offered to arrange for me to study with Mitchell Dahood in Rome, I jumped at the chance. While studying at the Biblicum (a Jesuit institution, for those who don’t know), I began auditing classes at the Waldensian Theological Seminary, a stone’s throw away from the Vatican (stone’s throw is the proper expression, from the Waldensian point of view). I soon realized that the call to ministry I had been in denial about was rearing its ugly head again. Except this time, among bouncy Italians and studious Germans some of whom reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, not to mention professors who actually knew what they were talking about, the head seemed almost beautiful for a change. So I wrote a letter to the seminary’s dean seeking ordination in the Waldensian church. They were foolish enough to second my request.

The Waldensian church began as a movement of itinerant preachers – men and women – in the late 1100s. They ran afoul of the hierarchy pretty fast. They were not good about asking bishops permission to preach against heresy in their dioceses, especially when they knew that said bishop cared little if at all about the Gospel in the first place. A Waldensian historian, Giovanni Gonnet, proposes that Francis of Assisi’s grandma was a Waldensian. It stands to reason, but the Franciscans, for obvious reasons, deny it, and the relevant archives they keep to themselves. At the time of the Reformation, Guillaume Farel and other Swiss Reformers met with Waldensians who had survived the various persecutions. The Waldensians split over the “new” doctrine of justification by faith, but most accepted it. Adherence to the Reformation, and the “coming out of the closet” that entailed – they stopped being what John Calvin called “Nicodemites” and worshipped openly as Reformed Christians – cost them rivers of blood. The trauma of those massacres committed by the bishop of Rome is etched in the psyche of all Waldensians, including my own.

During my first year in Rome, Father Dahood passed away, cutting short my studies at the Biblicum. But soon I was teaching Hebrew at the seminary, and my second year there, a beautiful and pugnacious sixth generation Italian Methodist arrived on the scene, and the rest is history. We went on to serve Waldensian and Methodist churches in Rome, the Abruzzi, Friuli, and Sicily before coming to Wisconsin under Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader of the United Methodist Church. Paola is a church planter. Just this week, her congregation, all young families, bought a building. The congregation I serve is well-established. Among other things, I teach a group of high school students Hebrew. They like Randall Buth’s materials most of all.

BW: How did you initially become fascinated with the Hebrew Bible?

JH: At the experimental high school I attended, we were allowed to invent our own curriculum. The staff of the high school secured teachers for us. For a bookworm like me, it was paradise. In my sophomore year, I asked to learn Hebrew and Greek. It turned out that the Hebrew course they arranged was modern Hebrew – but that is the best way to start anyway. My Greek teacher was a grad student at the UW-Madison in Hebrew. Like Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I could only exclaim: “O brave new world! That has such people in it.”! While a junior in high school, I was learning classical Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic at the UW, and working as a project assistant for Menachem Mansoor on his Arab World Project and The Book and the Spade (biblical archaeology). Mansoor brought all the greats to Madison to lecture. I remember Yadin and Greenfield most of all. I fell in love with the land as well, and dug at Tel Dan one summer; later, at Tel Qarqur in Syria.

BW: Where did you attend school and complete your graduate work?

JH: After two years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, at age 18 I went to the University of Toronto to study in one of the best ancient Near Eastern Studies programs in the world. The Canucks treat Yanks as foreigners, even though the only difference I noticed is how they pronounce the word “about.” But that worked to my advantage, because I became part of the lively international student community in Toronto. Now my best friends included Iranians and Israelis. Experiencing the Khomeini Revolution through Iranian eyes was the best poltical education I could have ever received. At the same time, I was involved in student politics, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, especially Theological Students Fellowship, lived in a Christian student community, worked illegally in the home renovation business, and found time here and there to study Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, Akkadian, Sumerian, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, yada, yada. I loved studying in the library of Knox College. In the summers I was back in Madison and served as a research assistant for Michael Fox on a couple of his books. Fast forward to the end of my studies in Rome: I wrote my dissertation at the Waldensian Theological Seminary under Jan Alberto Soggin and Mario Liverani on “Imperialism as a Theological Problem in First Isaiah.” Written in Italian, it was accepted for publication on condition of cosmetic changes, but I was in a foul mood at the time, and never submitted the revisions.

BW: What are your specific interests related to the Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern studies?

JH: I try to keep up on the field as a whole, but my chief interests are the prophets, the psalms, and wisdom literature.

BW: Where has your research interests taken you now? What sort of projects do you have in mind for the future?

JH: Right now I’m preparing a book on “Regularities in Ancient Hebrew Poetry,” a review of Paolo Sacchi’s recent book on the sacred / profane, a dictionary project for Logos, a bilingual Hebrew English edition of Ben Sira, and an article on the poetry of Qohelet for a forthcoming collection of essays. Blogging is responsible for my being invited to do most of these things.

BW: When and why did you start blogging? And why the name Ancient Hebrew Poetry?

JH: My son Giovanni, now 17, pestered me into blogging. He’s a techno-geek, and designed the site. I’ve been blogging seriously for about 12 months. It works for me because I have wide interests, love people, and am not afraid of making a fool of myself. I was not prepared to see the blog reach an average of over 500 unique visitors per day. It’s called “Ancient Hebrew Poetry” because that’s its principal focus.

BW: Besides the Hebrew Bible, what sort of topics do you discuss on your blog?

JH: I’m still learning to interact with my readers as multi-dimensional human beings rather than *just* grad students and profs in Hebrew Bible and affine subjects, missionaries, priests, rabbis, and very smart laypeople with an interest in the Bible and God and such. A few of us are talking about doing a blogathon on children’s books at the moment. It’s another great topic.

BW: What blogs do you read most frequently? What makes for a good and captivating blog?

JH: See my blogroll. I need to add blogs I read outside of the field. There are some excellent blogs sponsored by publishers that I would like to highlight as well. But that also crosses a line for me. I despise blogs that are basically an exercise in self-promotion. We have all have our hobby-horses, of course, but it’s important to watch for what people are asking about and respond to requests by others to blog on topics one might otherwise have avoided.

I see blogging as a great way to introduce subjects of interest to tons of people. I like to play up the accomplishments of the field of biblical studies and cognate disciplines.

Ideally, blog posts are short and to the point with an excellent starter bibliography attached, and links to discussion elsewhere online. It’s hard work to do well.

I try to give colleagues a heads up when I discuss their work online. Most are gracious about it, but are are also shrinking violets and prefer to correspond via private email rather than expose themselves to “direct combat” online. A few are nitpicky, but that’s okay: it’s one reason they are great scholars. Very occasionally, scholars are impossible to please and are remarkable mainly for their incredibly thin skin.

It would be a lot easier to blog in an informative way if the better scientific journals in the field were all on-line for free. I have access to them through JSTOR and ATLA, but in most cases can’t link to them for everyone. That’s a pity. Books should all be digitalized as well. These are obvious things, so it will happen, and a lot of good things are in process now.

BW: What directions would you like to see the blogging world take?

JH: I would like the blogging world to offer more quality resources, but that will require partnerships with academic institutions, publishers, and so on, and there is no ready-made template for it. Most people I am in community with via the blogosphere know the value of flesh-and-blood teachers, a classroom setting, lifelong learning, and a community of teachers and learners. The blogosphere is a like a finger that points in that direction, a reflection of that wider setting, or it is nothing.

I don’t know what to do with the commercial side of things. I get more and more requests to link to vendors, but am queasy about it.

BW: If there is such a thing as spare time in your world, how do you prefer to spend it?

JH: I prefer to spend it as I am doing right now, in my church study, with people popping in and out, my nose in a book, a bluegrass / gospel concert in the sanctuary providing music in the background. It’s a fundraiser for the community-wide food pantry my congregation spearheads.

BW: Lastly, and we ask this of all our interviewees, is there any one fact about you or special talent that our readers wouldn’t know?

JH: I’ve learned the most in life from people who are unlike me in every way. It is one of the joys of being a pastor.

BW: Thanks again, John. I know our readers will enjoy reading this interview.

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