Bad Advice II
Bill Long 11/16/07
A Reversal of Fortunes
I had listened to my heart, possibly for the first time in my life, when I changed my major from pure mathematics to religious studies in 1972. Because Brown had a liberal policy of major-declaration, I was able to wait until the beginning of my Junior year (1972-73) actually to "declare" it. Liberal policies have their use...
But my budding joy at listening to my heart was cut short by two pieces of bad advice I received during my undergraduate and graduate days. I skip my time at Seminary (1974-77), which I have written about here (three essays). The bad pieces of advice came, respectively, from conservative and liberal Christians. This realization has made me an equal-opportunity religious basher as the years have gone on...
Bad Advice # 1
As I said in the previous essay, by Spring 1972 I was all agog over the Scriptures. Not a day passed when I didn't commit more verses to heart. I would go to bed at night with the sound of Psalms on my tape recorder (I made my youngest brother Chris read some Psalms onto a tape); I would awake with them in my mind. Then, on one occasion, I was invited to dinner at the home of a guy named Dave. He and his wife were in their early 30s and were advisors to the Brown Christian Fellowship ("BCF") from "the community." They were thoughtful and concerned Christian people. Over dinner I causally mentioned to Dave that I was spending most of my time memorizing the Bible. In fact, I was working through the Book of Proverbs, going at a clip of possibly 5-10 verses a day.
A look of horror came over his face. "Why are you doing that?" he asked. "You can be far more efficient in your Scripture time if you take a chunk of five or so verses and then study them thoroughly, checking cross-references, and roughing out "points" from the text that you might want to mention in a message." Then he looked at me and said a line that was repeated ad nauseum by people to me after that. "Why are you wasting your time with rote memorization (they always called it "rote memorization" for some reason) when there is so much more you could be learning in the time spent memorizing?"
Perhaps because I was still a little unsure of myself or because I wanted to "make it" in life (and I believed that older people held the key to "making it"), I didn't answer Dave or, possibly, I gave a non-committal answer such as "Oh, I like it." Dave would have none of this, however. And so I took his advice and stopped doing what I loved to do. Cold turkey. Well, I sometimes would sneak a couple of verses in later years (and I memorized some poems) but I basically gave up memorizing at that time. It was, probably, one of the worst decisions I could have made for, without the anchor that memorization provided for me, I began to imbibe the frenzy which no doubt characterized Dave's life and would soon characterize mine.
And frenzy is a good word for it. You just don't have time to sit down and memorize or patiently to let the words of a text wash over you. You had to be hustling, on the move, conquering new domains of knowledge or activity. I think that Dave's advice to quit memorizing actually wrenched me from a beautiful world I was beginning to construct within my mind and deposited me in the maelstrom of what we all experience as "daily living." Well, maybe "daily living" would have caught up with me sooner or later anyway, and Dave was just hastening the process, but I felt after I left my memorizing that I was not really gaining any real knowledge whenever I studied. Because I had a good mind, I could learn everything I was supposed to learn without any difficulty, but I now had no rootage, no anchor, no fundamental reason for learning anything. I was blown from subject to subject, from activity to activity, from demand to demand. Though I picked up a Ph. D. and assembled a nice resume over the next 30 years, I confess that I listened to a piece of bad advice that I permitted to take me from something I loved. It indicates to me (in 2007) that I wasn't either strong enough or self-confident enough to go against the grain in learning at that time.
I guess I don't berate myself too much for that. After all, by memorizing and deriving my knowledge from memorization and the fruit which emerged from memorization, I was in fact saying that education should work differently from the way I was being taught. To have expected myself at age 20 or 21 to formulate and put into effect an alternative theory of education while, at the same time, trying to get my B.A. in traditional subjects and evangelize the world for Christ would have been too much. But it led to what I would call an intellectual aimlessness that I felt for at least two decades. More about that later...
Bad Advice # 2
The second bad piece of advice came from the religious liberals. I returned to Brown for doctoral work in Religious Studies ("RS") in Fall 1977, after three years at theological seminary. I was 25 at the time, and I was longing for the opportunity not only to continue to study early Christianity, my doctoral area, but to branch into tons of other areas of intellectual inquiry which were now rising in my consciousness. For example, I wanted to take some courses in Classics to improve my Grek and Latin; in history in order to understand the growth of American religion; in the social sciences; in philosophy and, drum roll, in the history of mathematics. Brown University had internationally-recognized "stars" in each of these fields but none, perhaps, as much as in the history of mathematics. David Pingree was at Brown, and he was doing some work of such technical brilliance (you needed about 4 language just to step into his classroom) and scope that it would have been a unique honor to study with him.
But the RS folk sat me down and told me in no uncertain terms that I "belonged" to the Department, that the Department had professors who taught courses that I needed to take, that they knew how to keep a graduate student busy, etc. etc. The lesson they were trying to teach me was that if I wanted to "make it" in life, I would need to specialize. I would need to focus on one field and, as I dove deeper into that field, into one subfield and into a subfield of that subfield. In other words, the Brown Department of Religious Studies rightly perceived the way the world was going--the spoils belonged to those who could identify and master new and narrow fields of inquiry. You couldn't just be an expert in religious studies, or even Christianity, or even Christianity in late antiquity or even the New Testament. You had to focus on a few texts--such as the Nag Hammadi documents or Qumran scrolls or the historian Josephus or the Book of Acts. That is where life was--in specialization.
As with the advice given by Dave, so with that given by the Department. I gave up my interests in other fields (they let me sit in on a classics seminar in Herodotus and Thucydides because I was working on an history problem in Luke-Acts). I dutifully followed what they said because, after all, they knew how knowledge worked. They were paid to tell me how it worked and how I could make a life with the knowledge they transmitted.
But, in fact, following that advice made me miserable. I found it impossible just to focus on my field, and I became restless in the thought that for the rest of my life I had to publish on Luke-Acts (my dissertation topic). I resolved to give up New Testament study. I resolved to get into new things. But then I got my first teaching job (1982). And my first child arrived. And I was trying to build a family. And I wanted to be a "big star" in my new city (Portland, OR). And, worst of all, I buried my heart so deep in some hidden subterranean cavern that I thought I would never hear it again.
The final essay talks about how I dug out from this situation.