Blogger of the Month for December 2008
Brandon Wason Interviews Mark Vitalis Hoffman
Mark Hoffman authors the The Biblical Studies and Technological Tools blog at http://bibleandtech.blogspot.com/.
BW: Mark, thank you for taking the time and agreeing to participate in this interview.
MH: Thank you, Brandon, for this opportunity. I think it is a great way to personalize a bit the connections that are being made online.
BW: First, please tell our readers a little about yourself. Where did you grow up and how did you become interested in the Bible?
MH: I grew up in Illinois and attended a Lutheran parochial grade school. We had an hour each day of biblical and catechetical instruction, and I am also grateful (in retrospect!) for the required Bible passages memory work. I don’t know that I can say that I was “interested” in the Bible, but the Bible certainly did become an integral part of how I understood the world.
BW: When did you decide to pursue a career in biblical studies? What is your academic history?
MH: I had started out as an English (for the joy of it) and Engineering (for the future job prospect) major at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. If I had stayed in the Engineering field, I am sure I would have ended up in computer science. It was an exciting time for computing at the U of I. Just in my first two years, we were starting to move from punch cards to the first video terminals. One of my teachers worked on a pioneering 3D plotting tool, and we were just starting to figure out what one could do with the ARPANET. I was having trouble seeing myself as an Engineer, and, combined with the encouragement of some friends and my desire to do something that I found more meaningful, I switched to a Religious Studies major with the intention of becoming a pastor. It was quite a switch. I discovered that I already knew a lot of the biblical details, but I was being asked to think about the Bible and its message in all new ways. I had some amazing professors: David Peterson for OT, Vernon Robbins for NT, William Schoedel for early Church, and Gary Porton for Rabbinics. It was a challenging time for me as I tried to figure out how an academic approach to the Bible could go along with a faith-based perspective. I had a chance to work as an assistant for Vernon Robbins, and he was a model for me of how someone could be both a serious scholar and a faithful church person. At this point, I was still planning on a ministerial career, and so I went to Luther (Northwestern) Theological Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Here too I had some outstanding teachers, David Tiede and Don Juel especially, who encouraged me to consider graduate work. In the Lutheran system, the M.Div. program is four years, including a year of internship which I served in Longview, WA. I ultimately decided to continue my studies at Yale University. There was considerable focus on sociological approaches to the NT from which I benefitted, and again I had great teachers, Wayne Meeks, Abraham Malherbe, Richard Hayes, and James Kugel being among the most influential. I found, however, that I was most interested in ancient biblical interpretation along the lines of Nils Dahl and Don Juel. I spent four years at Yale completing comprehensives and getting my dissertation topic approved. Progress on writing the dissertation came to a grinding halt when I then became married, taught for a year at Luther Seminary, and then started serving in parishes in Spicer, MN andFargo, ND with my wife. To the relief of my advisors—Wayne Meeks and Stephen Fraade—I finally did manage to complete it in 1996. All told, I served 14 years as a pastor before taking the position in biblical studies at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg (PA) where I have now been since 2002.
BW: You mentioned to me that you are returning to your dissertation and will soon publish a revised version of it. What did your dissertation address?
MH: My dissertation title is “Psalm 22 (LXX 21) and the Crucifixion of Jesus.” It really is a history of the ancient interpretation of this psalm. My basic approach was to try to read the psalm as it was read in antiquity and consider why it was important for early Christians in the telling of the crucifixion of Jesus. I’d like to think I was fairly comprehensive, covering textual traditions, pre-Xn use of the psalm, early patristic and rabbinic discussions, and then trying to see how the NT usages fit within this larger scheme. Though Ps 22 is not a messianic psalm, it has all sorts of potential ways of being read in reference to a son of God or Davidic heir. The only significant new move evidenced in the NT authors is to claim that the psalm is about the Son of God, the messianic Davidic heir. Though it really was peripheral to my argument, I also came to the conclusion that the easiest way to explain why Ps 22.2 ended up being recorded as the dying words of Jesus in Mark and Matthew is not because it was theologically attractive to add it in, but because it was believed that Jesus actually spoke those words.
BW: In addition to the previous question, what are your current research interests?
MH: In line with my dissertation, I continue to work on matters dealing with the Old Testament in the New. I also really enjoy teaching Greek, and I’ve been trying to rethink how I teach Greek within the parameters of our curriculum in order to gain the most long-term benefit. It’s at this point that I’ve been spending a lot of time figuring out the most effective ways of using Bible software. The Gospel of Mark is the most interesting Gospel to me, and one class I teach focuses on how we experience that Gospel and how we might go about re-presenting it in a way that is compelling and appealing for a 21st century audience. The parables of Jesus are another area of interest for me. (It’s still in an early stage, but see my Parables of Jesus site.) I am fascinated how Jesus used them as a teaching tool, especially given their paradoxical, ambiguous, and interactive nature. I have also been surveying the digital resources available for biblical mapping, a topic on which I presented at Logos’ BibleTech 08 and will revisit at the upcoming SBL meeting.
BW: I read that you are also an ordained pastor. To what denomination do you belong? Does this complement your vocation as a professor? If so, in what ways?
MH: I am a rostered pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and I regard that just I was called to parish ministry, now I am called to a teaching ministry. I think that my 14 years in parish ministry were critical in shaping my understanding of the goal of seminary education. When teaching an Adult Education class, one doesn’t have the incentive of curriculum requirements and grades. Instead, one must really focus on how the content is presented and how it addresses issues that interest and challenge the participants. In moving from the parish to the seminary, I still try to keep those matters in mind, both in terms of the interest of the students themselves and of the ministry settings for which I am helping to prepare them.
BW: Alan Lenzi, our October interviewee stated that believing biblical scholars “should practice methodological atheism when pursuing academic Biblical Studies.” Would you agree with Alan’s statement? What do you see as the role(s) of Christian biblical scholars within the academic guild?
MH: I suppose I start with a methodological ‘non-theism.’ There should be a way that we can talk meaningfully with non-Christians about the Bible that doesn’t require a prior faith affirmation. On the other hand, I do believe that the Bible is the living Word of God. As a matter of faith, therefore, I do believe that there is a consistent story and there are unifying themes across the Bible, and that attending to these provides a more comprehensive understanding. That is, Scripture helps us to interpret Scripture, and to dissect portions of Scripture in literary isolation will be a deficient reading from a Christian perspective. In addition, I enjoy teaching at a seminary where it is not just encouraged but expected that we will have the opportunity to talk about the Bible as that Word of God that shapes our faith and practice.
BW: When did you start blogging? Which blogs do you read and why?
MH: I started blogging in March 2007. I had been skeptical about blogs, but I wanted to see what it was about. I wasn’t particularly interested in reading others’ random thoughts, and I didn’t think anyone should be interested in my random thoughts either. For that reason, I decided to experiment writing in an area that interested me and that might actually provide some helpful information to others.
I don’t “read” too many blogs, but I’ve developed the skill of scanning quite a few. I focus on a few areas. I try to keep up with technological developments, so a number of my feeds are linked to the biblical software sites as well as some purely secular ones. I’ve also been attending to pedagogical developments, especially ones that look at digital or online matters, so there a bunch of elearning sites I follow. I also subscribe to a few sites by others who are working on similar sorts of biblical study issues as I am. I also set up blogs for most of my seminary classes and for my family and monitor those as well.
BW: Your blog has a very specific niche with its emphasis on technology and the Bible. Do you have special training in this area, or are you self-taught? How did you become interested in technological tools, and how do you stay on top of this always-updating field?
MH: I had enough of an introduction to computing science back in my undergrad days to realize that I apparently think how a computer programmer thinks. I usually can intuit how to use some software application, and I would much rather figure something out by trial and error or by following examples. (This accounts for the number of short videos I provide on my site demonstrating how to conduct some specific task.) I’m rather pragmatic about my use of technology, though. That is, I usually have some question or task I’m trying to accomplish and then try to figure out which tool to use and the most effective way to use it. Back in the day, I did compose a script for a 9-pin, dot-matrix printer in order to print Syriac from Nota Bene (DOS). Nowadays I mainly am working on learning the capabilities within the programs I use. Still, I have a Dell Axim PDA, and so I’m checking out the mobile, biblical applications. And then if I want to share my findings or use stuff for teaching in class or online, I have to figure out screen captures, graphics editing, video, audio, etc. I keep up the best I can on new stuff via the blogs I read. Other than the Bible software blogs and forums, the best ones I scan are Jane’s E-Learning,Robin Good’s MasterNewMedia, and Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities.
BW: Where do you think the future of blogging is headed? With the popularity of social-networking sites, are blogs being replaced by Facebook, or do you think they will continue to proliferate?
MH: Wired magazine has declared blogs to be “so 2004.” I see a number of my reader feeds dwindling away, and most recently, Lingamish / David Ker has decided to give it a rest. I’m on Facebook, but I do very little there. (I figure a sure way to kill Facebook is to get a bunch of teachers observing what students are doing and saying.) I know Facebook is huge for my teenage daughters, but I don’t really learn anything there. For social networking, fine, but it isn’t a great place for getting technical information, learning skills, discovering the latest biblical news releases, and discussing such things. I think, therefore, that blogs will continue, but I expect that they will slowly change. I do think that either you will need to have a 1) massive, highly trafficked blog or 2) one that’s a personal, online journal someone runs simply for his/her own benefit or 3) a highly focused niche blog. My Bible and Tech blog falls in this last category. This kind of blog remains, however, a very time consuming commitment motivated simply by the desire to share stuff that might help others or save some them some time. I certainly am not doing it for the money! I don’t do advertising on my blog. I have some links to Amazon books I occasionally reference, but I think I’ve made all of 43 cents in commissions in over a year. So, I think there will continue to be a place for blogs (and wikis), but I don’t think that they will continue to proliferate as they have in the last few years.
BW: I know you are very busy, but when you find down time, how do you usually spend it?
MH: I have two daughters who keep me pretty busy with sports, music, drama, and the like. There are always social and service events connected with the seminary or church (where my wife is a pastor). I exercise regularly: running, tennis, basketball, biking. I play around with digital photography. If I really had more time, I would get back to my guitar, a 1974, blond maple, Fender Strat.
BW: Do you have any special talents or hobbies that our readers would not have otherwise known?
MH: Back when I was in seminary, I had a punk rock band named “Saliva Puke and the Vomettes.” We only had one song (“Love’s No Fun”) and one performance.
BW: Besides your blog, you also operate a website (CrossMarks Christian Resources). Would you like to tell our readers about the site and its purposes?
MH: A number of things were happening for me in the mid-1990’s. I remember one night in 1995 when we got a computer with a 9600 baud modem and a free trial on the new AOL service. I stayed up most of the night and told my wife in the morning that I had seen the future. Also, I was serving then as a pastor atHope Lutheran in Fargo, ND, and I was the de facto tech guy. Put these together, and the result is that I created a web site for my church in 1996. A large part of my pastoral responsibilities, however, was adult education. I was mostly composing my own resources, and so I started learning enough HTML to post my studies on the web. By 1998, I had enough other stuff I was posting that wasn’t necessarily connected to my church, so I set up a .org name for the church and claimed the CrossMarks.com name for myself. So, I have celebrated a 10 year anniversary for the site, which means it is relatively ancient on the web. (Here are the archived pages.)
I kept adding resources over the years, and I really have tried to provide “outstanding Bible Study materials and other Christian resources which are appropriate for small group or personal use.” I have some free resources, but I also have packaged Bible studies for which I sell copy permissions. I keep prices very reasonable, so I only make a few hundred dollars each year from it, but that is enough to pay the hosting bills and make it worthwhile for me to keep it going. It has been fun to see the growth in traffic to the site, and to have visitors from all over the world. I now average well over 1000 unique visits each day. A good percentage of that traffic, however, is to check out the excellent notes posted on the weekly Gospel lectionary text by a Lutheran colleague I met on the web, Brian Stoffregen. I’ve converted, collated, and indexed all his notes, and they are a great resource he is sharing and I am happy to be hosting.
BW: Lastly, do you have any recommendations about must-have technological tools that are helpful to biblical scholars? (this is where you can plug your favorite software etc.) ;-)
MH: I tell my students that Bible software is truly an essential resource they need to have and know how to use. Since I’m using Windows, I primarily use BibleWorks and Logos, but I’ve also been testing Accordance running under Mac emulation. I regularly review and compare various aspects of these programs on my blog, and I have come to appreciate the relative strengths of each. Of course, most people don’t have the luxury of owning all three programs nor the inclination to learn the intricacies of each, but I hope that I’m providing a service to biblical scholarship by encouraging the best practices demonstrated in each of them.
BW: Thank you, Mark! We do appreciate your participation and wish you the best.