Steve Runge (1/09)

Blogger of the Month for January 2009

John Hobbins interviews Steve Runge

Steve Runge is the author of NT Discourse: Removing the Mystery from Discourse Grammar at http://www.ntdiscourse.org/.

JH: Steve, thank you for allowing biblioblogs.com to interview you.

SR: Thanks for the invitation to participate, John.

JH: Tell us about yourself. Did you grow up in the Pacific Northwest or is that your adopted home? How did you come to be interested in the languages of the Bible and the field of linguistics?

SR: I grew up in what is now the booming metropolis of Burke, Virginia. I came to Bellingham, Washington in 1985 to attend college. Like many of the residents here, I fell in love with the area, found a job after graduating, and never left. I met my wife Glenda in school, and we were married a year after I graduated.

My interest in languages is a bit more complicated. My dad worked for the government, and he did a stint in Norway while I was in high school. I learned a smattering of Norwegian during the year I lived there, and then learned German while attending boarding school in Austria. When I entered college, I minored in Russian. I loved the problem-solving aspect of language, the way you had to process the various patterns of the phonology to conjugate the forms. I just love problem-solving when it comes to patterns, I can’t get enough of it. This interest was heightened by attending the first semester of linguistic training with Oregon SIL in 1987. In 1992 I entered seminary in British Columbia part-time, building houses to fund my schooling. I was told by a pastor to avoid all language classes and to focus on what really made a difference in ministry: counseling. Hmm. I found I liked most everything about language, and took every class available, as well as some directed studies. I was not really prepared for what I found. The grammatical explanations of Greek and Hebrew seemed backwards compared to what I had seen in German and Russian. When I asked “why” questions, I either got blank looks or “stylistic variation” as an answer. It irked me somewhere down deep that folks invested 2-3 years of study, and yet left school without a good sense of how the language worked. I was one of those people. I could parse and translate well, but I did not own the language. After finally cramming my two year MTS degree into seven, I began doing independent research to try and find a better way of doing things.

JH: How well do you know the biblical languages? Do you pick up and read a large swath of text, or are you an analytical reader who dillies and dallies in details?

SR: I took the standard two years of Greek and Hebrew, then TAed Greek for another two years before I went on to do some teaching. I did a significant amount of independent reading and study of Hebrew for my thesis. My oral skills have suffered from studying independently, I think, but my reading comprehension is solid. In terms of strategy, I tend to read widely and look at the larger patterns, rather than dally on lexical issues. I am interested in details primarily to the extent that they inform the bigger picture, but not as an end in themselves. One of the most important strategies I learned in seminary was the idea of “living” in a book. This entails reading and rereading until I own the content enough to be able to think abstractly about the book and its structure. John Sailhamer’s work in the Pentateuch had a big impact on me, as did the poetics work of Adele BerlinRobert Alter and Shimon Bar-Efrat. I wanted to be able to do the kind of work they were doing.

JH: How did you transition from your doctorate to the position of scholar-in-residence with Logos? How come Logos has a scholar-in-residence in the first place? It sounds very nifty.

SR: As I was finishing my dissertation in 2006, I was still a self-employed framing contractor, and expected to apply for teaching positions in the fall at SBL. Logos had moved to Bellingham in 2002, but I had little contact with them. Just after turning 39 in April, I had a rather major heart attack, what the doc called “a widow maker.” I had no risk factors or family history of heart disease, so theoretically it should not have happened. But it was severe enough that it should have done me in. Instead I walked into the ER complaining of bad chest pains. One thing became clear: my multi-tasking of raising a family, running a business, writing a dissertation and serving at church had taken a toll. The heart attack was a wake up call to get into a less stressful situation.

In mid-September I approached Logos about doing some contract work to help make ends meet during the winter. I showed Mike Heiser a sample of the discourse analysis I had done for my doctoral work, and he in turn showed it to others. This resulted in a job offer a few days later for a position that they created for me. I began the day after I submitted my dissertation. I was given two years to turn the concept I had in my head into a marketable product that would benefit pastors, students and lay people. The project eventually became the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament (LDGNT) and its English counterpart, the High Definition New Testament (HDNT). My primary intention for the doctoral studies was to create resources like these to teach from, geared for pastors and translators working with biblical languages. The discourse databases were to be my summer research projects while teaching. I figured it would take me 7-10 years to complete the NT analysis, and who knows how long for the Hebrew bible. The position with Logos has given me the freedom to pursue the project full time, and get the initial release of the NT out the door in 18 months.

One of the frustrating things about the position has been coming across amazing things during the analysis that I would love to follow up on, yet without the time to do so. 18 months of note cards and post-its piled up on my desk and wall. I received a special dispensation to pull all of this together into a teaching resource to accompany the LDGNT. The caveat was that I had 100 calendar days (not working days) to produce a draft of the content. I began June 1, and by Labor Day weekend I had an 18 chapter, 325 page description of what I had annotated in the discourse databases: Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament. At times I thought I was going to have another heart attack, but it was a great way to spend the summer!

JH: You’ve studied with the best, people like Christo Van der Merwe and Stephen H. Levinsohn. Can you relate a few anecdotes about your teachers?

SR: I still scratch my head over why they took me on. I first contacted Stephen in early 2001, based on a paper he had written that covered the very topic I was interested in studying. He would respond to my questions with citations or a bibliography for me to go and read. This interaction culminated in attending a six-week workshop he facilitated on analyzing discourse. I was one of five attendees, analyzing Exodus 1-12. I met with him at least twice a day, studying 10-12 hours a day 6-7 days a week. Levinsohn is a stickler for detail, looking at every instance of what he is interested in before formulating a hypothesis or description. He works from the bottom up, looking at every detail. I tend to form a hypothesis and work from the top down, modifying it as I encounter new data. He would hound me for forming an idea too early, in his opinion. During the workshop we looked at a claim made by Lars Lode about the discourse function of the Masoretic accents. Stephen started from the bottom up, I started from the top down. We ended up meeting in the middle, and reached the same conclusion. It was only then than he conceded that top-down was an acceptable approach.

One of the most helpful things I learned from Levinsohn was the importance of a cross-linguistic understanding of language. Every language must accomplish certain tasks, and there are a finite number of ways to accomplish them. If a claim is made about Greek using X or Y to accomplish a task, it should be attested in other languages. If not, then there is a good chance that the claim is wrong.

I met Christo at the 2001 SBL meeting in Denver after some initial interaction via email. As a carpenter, I loved the way he unpretentiously presented papers in jeans and a windbreaker. I have a deep respect and fondness for him. What struck me most about Christo was his passion for understanding the broader literature of a field, and his care in formulating a proper theoretical framework. He also strongly encouraged me in invest time reading about cognitive linguistics, at which I nearly laughed. No way would I invest time in esoteric theory that had no practical application. Boy, was I ever wrong. Cognitive linguistics ended up being the key to unlocking the major problem of my dissertation. Through this process I learned the importance of a robust and complete theoretical framework.

Most aspects of my graduate studies have been like a spiritual adventure. I would hit a wall, pray for some kind of guidance, and things would happen. The works by Berlin and Bar-Efrat opened a whole new world to me. Levinsohn’s paper on participant reference showed up on a Google search (or whatever it was then), and he ended up becoming a significant mentor. One of my favorite events in the whole process was the final discussion about my dissertation topic with Christo. We had been corresponding about the specifics of my topic: a linguistic description of participant reference in BH narrative. He was skeptical. As I was completing the six-week workshop with Levinsohn, it just so happened that Christo would be coming to Bellingham about two weeks after I got home. The plan was to finalize the dissertation proposal at that point. One of Christo’s goals for the trip was to talk me into a different topic. Knowing this, I sent him Levinsohn’s paper in hopes that he might catch my vision for the project. Christo had been doing some Hebrew reading with grad students in the days before the trip, and it happened to be in Genesis 22. He saw something going on in the text, but was not really able to even define what the “something” was. In preparation for our meeting, he printed off Levinsohn’s paper to read on the plane. It turned out that the paper focused on the same anomaly that Christo had noticed in Genesis 22. In fact, the paper focused on Genesis 22. Christo later said that the hair stood up on the back of his neck as he read the paper. Instead of talking me out of the project when we met, he grabbed me by the shoulders and said “You must write this topic, it is important!” I think God has a serious sense of humor. Things like this gave me hope and stamina for what ended up being another seven year degree, though I was only registered for the final three.

JH: I’m impressed by your passion to get to the bottom of things and introduce discourse grammar to a wide public through your blog and Logos products. How well do you think someone needs to know Greek in order to understand discourse grammar as it relates to the New Testament?

SR: In short, I think that everyone needs to know Greek better than they do, me included. Having said this, one of the biggest stumbling blocks people encounter in learning Greek is seeing a practical pay off. Is translating the passage into NASB or NRSV really all there is to it? Some think that because they can use a program for parsing the morphology and assigning a gloss, they no longer need formal training. This is dead wrong, but a natural result of primarily training students to parse the morph and assign a gloss. Somewhere along the way, I think we have lost the tribal knowledge that used to be handed down. Guys like Robertson, Funk, and the still-living Carl Conrad have lived in the language enough to internalize the grammar. The challenge has been passing this on to the next generation when at the same time many language programs are being scaled back.

My primary mission in life is to reinvigorate interest in the study and application of biblical languages for exegesis. One of the biggest components of this endeavor IMO is demonstrating the practical payoff, to show that there is something significant you would not have been able to know without accessing the original. In that sense, I see myself as the “Bill Nye the science guy” of grammar. I even have a bow tie! I want to see the present deterioration of biblical language study reversed. In that sense, everyone needs more Greek, and they need to move forward from where they presently are. Most people however, are not doing doctoral-level discourse research. This is where my 18 years as a blue collar construction worker come in. I try to explain things so that Joe the Plumber could understand, though the plumbers I worked with were named Mick and Jose.

JH: I ask because I find the interlinear English on your blog truly annoying. Those whose Greek is weak need it, or something like it, but I find it hard to look at Greek with English mixed in. It ruins my concentration and immersion in Greek. What would you say if I suggested that, from the pedagogical point of view, the English is best dispensed with, parsing and glosses offered only on request and on a case-by-case basis only in pop-ups or the like, and a discourse grammar tag stream offered throughout?

SR: This would have been a great comment to post when it first bugged you, so thanks for asking. As I stated above, I am interested in helping people find a practical and accessible way of advancing their understanding of Greek. My focus is on the “rusty pastor”, the person who went to school, got the training, used it as much as they could in real life, but have seen their Greek skills falter like a New Year’s resolution. I had viewed the interlinear as increasing accessibility, but I will do some rethinking.

JH: Has the New Testament been tagged yet for information structure? I’m pretending I know nothing about the products you’ve authored. Here’s your chance to describe them.

SR: The LDGNT project provides an analysis of highlighting and prominence-marking devices as they occur in the text of the Greek NT. The annotations are not in the form of notes, but are graphically overlaid on the text itself. There is also an analysis of the information structure, i.e. the meaningful ordering of clause components to accomplish different discourse tasks. As far I as know, this kind of comprehensive analysis is a first. Most discussions of word order or discourse features are based on a small but representative corpus. In most cases, such studies are not sufficient to equip the reader to do their own analysis. Taking a small corpus may also side step major flaws in an approach that a broader application would bring to light. This is illustrated in Longacre’sJoseph: A Story of Divine Providence. It is a seminal work that broke ground in the field, but a number of his sociological claims regarding participant reference do not hold up to a broader application. His primary goal was to get the ball rolling, not to write the final word. I have the same goal.

The LDGNT analysis applies a cross-linguistic, functional framework to the entire NT. I did not have the luxury of skipping sections I did not like (though the thought crossed my mind a number of times). The goal of the project is to make the most useful insights from discourse and poetic studies accessible. For the specialized scholar, there is a technical analysis of information structure, coupled with a description of the cognitive processing of it in the discourse grammar. For the non-specialist, it is a collection of the most helpful exegetical markers for you to interact with just as you would any specialized commentary. For the layperson, the HDNT provides 80% of the same data in a more simplified form, overlaid on the ESV text.

JH: What are your plans with respect to discourse grammar and the Hebrew Bible?

SR: My intention is to do a comparable analysis of the Hebrew Bible, but there is no fixed timeline yet. I want the NT resources to be ready for a print version before I tackle anything else. I will keep you posted on any developments.

JH: You’ve blogged occasionally for blog.logos.com and now have your own blog. What is it about blogging that appeals to you?

SR: Doing the analysis of the LDGNT I came across some amazing things that I would love to talk about and get feedback on. However, I am not at a school, and have little opportunity other than SBL to really get much interaction. My goal for the blog is to make the case for the importance and utility of discourse grammar, and to partner with others in the same cause along the way. This is how I ended up hooking up with folks like Mike Aubrey, and I hope to see that continue.

JH: What suggestions do you have for fellow bloggers, things you would like to see discussed?

SR: My naive hope is that there would be meaningful discussion of significant issues. I blogged about this in a series of posts beginning here, criticizing the myopic discussion that tends to occur within scholarship. There is a tendency to reject someone else’s work because they do not use your approach, rather than evaluating it on its own merits. Changing this demands understanding the other approach well enough to crawl inside and use it. Few scholars are that interested in the extra effort it would take, yet they gripe about the lack of progress in the field. It makes me want to tear my hair out at times. At the jobsite, there was a way of effectively dealing with such impasses, but alas, such strategies are not acceptable within my new “guild.”

JH: Your blog has a very specific focus. Do you see it as one element in an interactive community, and if so, what are the other elements, potential and actual, in that community?

SR: Mentors and colleagues have played a significant role in my life. I am sold out to the idea of complementary, interdependent partnerships. I have a narrow interest and specific gifting, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. The interactive community provides an opportunity for constructive criticism, innovation and refinement of ideas and approaches that would be impossible in isolation. There is a need to go back and rethink some fundamental presuppositions that have been unquestioned for decades. I think the blogosphere is a great place for this kind of rethinking, like Mike Heiser has been doing with the doctrine of inspiration.

JH: I hear you have kids and a wife. What does a day in the life of Steve Runge look like?

SR: I am up most mornings between 4:30-5:00 am with my trusty sidekickPenny, reading, researching, or preparing to teach at church. My kids give me until 7:00 am to study, then they get me in the evenings. My wife Glenda continues to be a wonderful partner, though to my knowledge she has never read anything I have written. She even willingly put me on a plane to the UK for six-weeks, staying at home alone with two toddlers. She has a great mind and eye for detail, and I have learned a lot from her. My two daughters like that I can turn most anything into an adventure, something like a carpenter version of Mary Poppins tidying the nursery, but without singing and dancing. Currently they are practicing cow racing and such like on the Wii we got for Christmas in order to beat me when I get home from the office.

JH: Do you have talents or hobbies that you want to share with our readers? I’m wondering if you can top Mark Hoffman, our last interviewee, who said that in seminary, he had a punk rock band named “Saliva Puke and the Vomettes.”

SR: Not sure I can compete with that. My claim to fame was framing houses alone. The same skills that make me a good grammarian made me an efficient carpenter. I built tract homes, and could typically out build a two-man crew (in one case a four-man one) working a shorter day. My company name was Academic Construction, and I earned the nickname of Psycho because of my willingness to take calculated risks to improve efficiency.

JH: So, what’s the future hold in terms of electronic resources in the field of biblical studies? You seem to be in a position to know.

SR: Finding the information you want is now harder than ever, but for different reasons than in the past. It used to be that either you did not know something existed (unpublished papers or dissertations), or you could not get hold of it without a trip to some major library. With Al Gore’s invention of the internet, we now have access to too much, making it difficult to find what we actually need. One of the hallmarks of Logos’ approach to digital materials is enriching the data to facilitate searches. If I search a full text document for a Bible reference, I will not find what I am looking for unless I use the same abbreviation convention that Funk, Robertson or whoever used. With the enriched resources, I can do full-text searches of all of my grammars and commentaries and find the references I am looking for. I have a forthcoming article on the quotation of Joel 2 in Acts 2:17-20. Traditionally, I would consult the paper volumes on Acts and Joel, but in doing so I would have missed the “bunny trail” discussions of these passages that I found in other unrelated volumes.

More importantly, working in BDAG or HALOT, I get the kinds of pop-ups you requested above, deciphering the abbreviation of obscure citations. Even better, if the cited resource is in my library, I get a a preview pop-up or I can follow the hyperlink to the resource. How many times have you been reading Gesenius or Robertson, only to have them refer to some other portion of their work. Do you take the time to look at the other reference? With an electronic version that is smart-tagged, I can read the cited section without having to leave the present one. As we see more resources digitized, we need to make sure we can find what we are looking for. Something more is needed than PDF. We need more of the online resources to provide the kind of connectivity and cross-reference that is currently available in platforms like Logos. Until then we will continue to drown under the great new information we have access to.

JH: If you knew you were going to be stranded on an island for six months, and could only take six books with you, what would you take?

SR: My Greek NT and Hebrew Bible, Holmes’ Apostolic Fathers volume, Timothy Shopen’s Linguistic Typology and Syntactic Description (3 vols. count as one work, right?), Aland’s Synopsis of the Four Gospels, and one of Tom Clancy’s earlier works for fun.

JH: Thanks, Steve, for putting up with this interview! We appreciate your participation and wish you the best.

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