Blogger of the Month for May 2007
Jim West Interviews Bruce Fisk
Editorial Note: Bruce Fisk authors Crossings at http://normtroubles.blogspot.com/.
JW: Bruce, your blog is titled “Crossings.” Do you care to explain the reason you chose that title?
BF: “Crossings” was initially an allusion to the conflicted state of affairs in Israel-Palestine where daily life requires Palestinians to queue up in long lines to travel a few miles through the West Bank or to move from the Palestinian territories into Israel. For Palestinians, “crossing” military checkpoints to get to work, visit family or seek medical care is tedious, exhausting and humiliating. By extension the title signals my passion to shuffle between the narrative worlds of Jews and Palestinians neither of whom can make sense of the other. It is all too easy for outsiders (including moi) to embrace one side of the conflict and distort the other. Finally, “crossings” obliquely signals my Christian commitments. To summon others to reconciliation, justice and forgiveness, the shape of my own life must be cruciform.
JW: What drew you to “blogging?”
BF: Last summer I lived in the West Bank (in Jeremiah’s home town) long enough to rebuild a Palestinian house that had been demolished by Israeli bulldozers, and long enough to experience the conflict first hand. The construction effort was a humanitarian gesture but it also made a political statement. During those weeks I thought an on-line journal would help friends and students see the conflict differently. When the Israel-Lebanon war broke out while I was there, adding another layer of sadness and urgency to the situation, it insured that the hits on my site would rocket from meager to slightly less meager.
After last summer my biblio-muse fell silent until the Talpiot tomb debate broke out. We explored the subject in class and I screened the documentary with a horde of students in a dorm lounge. I assigned them response papers, signed on to blogspot and began posting on the debate.
JW: How much time a week or month do you spend at it?
BF: I’m something of a binge-blogger. Little discipline and no systematic plan. When spare time, curiosity and the inspiration converge, I wade in. I’m still sorting out how it might best serve my own intellectual journey, the academic needs of my students, the broader academy (one might hope), the church and beyond. Next year I expect to integrate it more fully into my teaching so I’ll have to step it up a notch.
JW: The subtitle of your blog is quite interesting. “Musings and stories about the New Testament World, then and now.” In your estimation, what does this sentence mean?
BF: The original subtitle, back when my blog was more travel-writing than scholarship, was something like Stories from the Edges of Israel and Palestine. When the Jesus Tomb debate moved me to re-imagine my blog, I wanted to continue tracking the Israel-Palestine conflict, partly to indulge my inner journalist but also because the conflict is so important to me. Now, the more I toggle between New Testament studies and the modern Middle East conflict, between1st century Judea and 21st century Israel-Palestine, the more I see commonalities and connections between the two. In both worlds religion and politics are inseparable. In both an awesome military machine controls the movement and commerce of an occupied people. In both, full rights of citizenship are enjoyed only by a minority. The rest live anonymously on the margins, displaying varying degrees of sympathy toward those among them who lash out in acts of violence against the authorities. In both worlds the ruling power can be reasonable and fair one minute, but arbitrary and inhumane the next. In one world the rebels are called sicarii or zealots, in the other they are called militants or terrorists. The analogy breaks down, of course. For every similarity there may be ten differences. But it gets students pondering the contemporary relevance of Jesus and the New Testament, and considering what Christian discipleship might look like in the midst of intractable conflict.
JW: What does it mean to talk about the “New Testament world now?”
BF: I love taking students to the Middle East—I leave with 19 of ‘em in 2 weeks—to explore with them the terrain, political context and culture of the New Testament world. But I also like them to see what life is like in Israel-Palestine today. Many pilgrims to the “Holy Land” focus on shrines, digs and Bible stories with barely a passing glance toward issues in the modern conflict. Christian Zionists and the Israeli tourism industry like it that way. I don’t.
Back home, religious controversies routinely capture the public imagination. Each one affords biblical scholars a chance to inject sanity and balance into the conversation. It’s amazing to me how often New Testament scholarship is finding its way into the public square. I’m thinking of Brown’s Da Vinci Code, Gibson’s Passion, Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, the publication of The Gospel of Judas and now the Talpiot tomb. Like many of your readers, I ride these waves of public interest with abandon, provoke my students, offer lectures and answer anxious e-mails. It’s nice when the public suddenly cares what we think, isn’t it? That said, it’s tricky to get the right balance—tricky to give serious consideration to “new” theories without sounding defensive or dismissive. And tricky to sort through the sensationalism to find genuinely fresh insights. All in all, these are fun times to be a New Testament scholar.
JW: Sometimes a lot can be learned about things to which a person links. What do your links say about you?
BF: I have a more complete page of Middle East links on my college website and I embed lots of New Testament links in my syllabi (which I post to the web). The handful of links on Crossings say mostly that I haven’t given that corner of my blog much thought.
JW: Tell us a bit more about yourself. You know, educational background, family, etc.
BF: I’m Canadian, born in Montreal, raised near Toronto. For 8 years I taught New Testament at a Christian college on the windswept Saskatchewan prairie where winter temperatures regularly hover down where Celsius and Fahrenheit intersect and where the Northern Lights take your (frozen) breath away. I have several degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois and a Ph.D. from Duke. Under Richard Hays I worked on rewritten Bible and Paul. My dissertation on Pseudo-Philo is published with Sheffield. We came to Westmont College in 1999 where I happily teach New Testament and Greek. Starting next year I’ll be R.S. department chair. My dear wife works in the I.T. department at Westmont. We have one child in high school and two in college. Our dog Strider likes to sleep at my feet.
JW: What do you enjoy about blogging?
BF: I write to think. Since blogging is something of a hybrid between the classroom lecture, the academic conference, the journal article and the soapbox, it calls for more mental discipline and care than casual conversation but it makes less demands than peer-reviewed publications. That’s a pretty good recipe for creative, productive, innovative thought, it seems to me. Then there’s the wonder of the hotlink, the immediacy of feedback, and the accessibility of archives.
JW: Which blogs do you read most regularly?
BF: All the usual suspects. I tell my students to begin with Mark Goodacre’s stellar site. I also check in regularly with Stephen Carlson, Tyler Williams, Christopher Heard, James Tabor, Chris Tilling, you and others. The political blogosphere is great fun as well.
JW: How do you think biblioblogging could be improved?
BF: I like the organic, idiosyncratic, open-source feel of the blogosphere but I’m hoping we’ll see more collaboration whereby groups with overlapping interests post to the same site. Most blogs I visit are pretty much solo efforts. It would be fun to see someone adapt the bloggingheads.tv model using webcams and a split screen to encourage conversations among religion scholars.
JW: What is it about blogs that annoys you?
BF: The ease with which any bloke with an opinion and a keyboard can go global is a bit scary. It’s democratic and all but it presents a challenge to students and lay folk who want to know if a particular site can be trusted. And the self-promotion aspect of some blogging can be tiresome. Perhaps in time we will become less self-indulgent and more collaborative. And I hope we never value speed over thoughtfulness and care. On a whinier note, it bugs me when a blogger copies an entire entry from someone else’s blog instead of inserting a limited excerpt and linking readers to the source. Has anyone developed a code of conduct for the blogosphere yet?
JW: What connection do you see between blogging and academic study of the Bible?
BF: Clearly, with electronic resources for Biblical studies multiplying by the week, blogging is the perfect way to alert fellow scholars of what’s new, what’s helpful, what’s not. More generally, blogging is finding its place along the scholarly food chain. Scholarly hunches and ill-formed musings can be tested and refined on the web before they make their way into papers, articles, monographs, commentaries and sermons. Stephen Carlson’s multiple posts on Luke 2:2, for example, will almost certainly find their way into print. When they do, they’re sure to be stronger because of the feedback loop built into the blogosphere.
JW: And now to change the subject a bit, what do you like to do in your “down time?”
BF: I like to bike, hike, play piano, watch my son play Lacrosse, and travel. In recent years we’ve taken to family hikes in California’s high Sierras. Nothing technical, just lots of wilderness scrambling, glaciers and altitude. This year I’m starting to learn Arabic.
JW: Tell our readers something unusual about yourself. Have you any unusual hobbies or talents?
BF: I’m a pretty good carpenter, a decent improv pianist, a poor hockey player, a closet poet and an aspiring political lobbyist. I bring my dog to work with me. (I think she’s better known on campus than I am.) I love to sit by the fire with friends, sipping wine and smoking hookah. Oh, and I’m hoping to buy my first motorcycle this summer. If anyone is selling a good, used Honda VLX 600, let me know.
JW: Thank you again for your time, and thank you for your responses!
BF: Thanks for the invitation!