Tuesday, 27 November 2007

On the obscene length of commentaries

Michael has posted a delightfully obnoxious rant on the length of biblical commentaries. He issues “a plea to biblical studies boffins: stop and delete all those major commentaries you were working on. They aren’t helping! We don’t want them!”

I must admit, I’ve never been one to complain about the length of books: after all, my favourite poem is the 12-book Paradise Lost, and my favourite novel is the whale-sized Moby-Dick (worse still, my favourite film is the 9-hour-long Godfather trilogy...).

Still, I can sympathise with Michael’s frustration. In fact, I recently felt a little cheated when I bought a copy of Robert Jewett’s new commentary on Romans, only to discover that I couldn’t even lift it off the floor.

Then again, some people have made exactly the same complaint about dogmatic theology. I think it was E. L. Mascall who once observed that Barth’s “theology of the Word” is so voluminous that one no longer has any time left to read “the Word” itself! But as a disciple of Thomas Aquinas, Mascall might have been forgetting about the (Summa-sized) log in his own eye….

23 Comments:

michael jensen said...

and i thought I was being quite restrained! ;-)

WTM said...

This is the genius of Calvin's commentaries - brevity. OF course, some might wonder if he succeeded since his commentaries stretch to 22 volumes, but very few of them are individually overwhelming.

That said, we do need a good, concise dogmatics. Jenson's isn't too bad when it comes to length. Hopefully Webster's won't be too hard to lift.

The Godfather trilogy is also my favorite film. It is a shame that you aren't (yet) in Princeton, since I'm thinking of hosting an all-day viewing of the trilogy in mid January.

Jim said...

Y'all are just reading the wrong commentaries. There are in fact some who actually write for real people and not overpreening specialists who live confined to small towers and who write only for 3 other people on the planet who give a flaming rats rump about the enclitic particle and its use in post exilic materials relating directly to nominal phrases and subjunctive mood inscriptions found in Egyptian locales and having to do with cattle herding.

kerry said...

Amen! Bibliolatry is deplorably dangerous and tragic. But Commentarolatry is pathetic and soul-killing. Text crunching, hunched-shoulder squibbing of each jot and tittle, page after page after page of learned references, etymological detective work, and cross referencing: to what end other than creating a virtual reality? A pox on the commentary industry.

Rory Shiner said...

Ben. Don't forget that even die-hard fans of The Godfather trilogy will often fast-forward vast sections of the third movie. Me, I'd be happy if they just tacked the scene of Michael's death to the end of part 2. Save you about 2.5 hours with nothing lost.

WTM said...

Rory,

Lest this disintegrate into a discussion only about the Godfather, I will simply state that I heartily disagree!

IndieFaith said...

Please. These are reference works not novels. Next I suppose you will be complaining that the Oxford Dictionary is not concise enough.

Jim said...

Reference works for whom? A closed network of like minded souls intent on preserving their jobs by producing volumes that sit on shelves but don't nourish minds... Stuff, any stuff, written without an eye to the public, is self serving, self aggrandizing rubbish.

kim fabricius said...

I blame it on Paul himself. What a precedent! I mean you've got to be an idiot to write a 15-page letter like Romans. I'm surprised his amanuensis didn't invent the first postcard. Of one thing you can be sure: no one suffered from insomnia in the church at Rome.

IndieFaith said...

Don't worry if people stop buying them they won't last long. And I only think a minority of people continue to buy such commentaries once they realize they are unhelpful at best. I am certainly disappointed in referring to most volumes in the ICC series but am looking forward to digging into the 1245 pages of Beale's work on Revelation and have profited greatly from Wildberger's 500 plus pages on Isaiah 1-12 and would challenge anyone who thought Wenham's careful and critical reading of Genesis was self aggrandizing rubbish (I wonder if placing your educational achievement on the title of your blog would be more qualifying of the comment ;) )
If they are not good references for you then so be it. Would I recommend many of them to people in my church . . . no.
And yes I also love, love the Interpretation Series of commentaries (at least the one's I've seen).
And I as I am rambling I may as well add that pastor's would well to spend as much time in Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and Joyce as any of the commentaries on their selves.

Ken said...

Nonsense Jim... Those reference works provide the necessary basis for the works that serve the public. It's a trickle down effect from the most learned who write the most difficult works to those equiped to at least understand their work and disseminate it to broader academic audiences to those able to popularize the learned material. I, for one, am grateful for the work of scholars who investigate all the minutiae that I simply don't have the inclination to investigate. Their work helps to ensure that my work rests on more solid foundation.

michael jensen said...

I have to agree with the assessment of Wenham's work, and my former colleague Peter O'Brien's commentaries are a model of careful and judicious commentary.

Perhaps Kim F would have preferred it if Paul had written Romans as a list of 10 propositions...

Nick Norelli said...

You guys really liked the third Godfather? Really??? :^\

Ray Anderson said...

In 1928, Bonhoeffer's father had written him in Barcelona (Spain) to purvey the church examiners' low estimation of the model religious lessons he had prepared as part of his ordination examination. Their suggestion was that he read exemplary sermons and instructions to learn how such things are done. To the contrary, Karl Bonhoeffer shared the advice his own mentor had given him as a young psychiatrist: "Just don't read any psychiatric literature! It only makes one dumb!" In prison, Dietrich read everything but theological literature! (Thomas Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Christian Community and Common Sense, p. 183)

Rory Shiner said...

I hear ya Nick. Ben: It's time to play your hand on this important issue...

Jim said...

Indie

(is that your real name?)- my blog title isn't self aggrandizing- it's clarifying. Google Jim West- you'll be appalled at what people of the same name do with their time!

;-)

Nonetheless, long, overwrought commentaries help no one (except grad students looking to examine the entrails of the gnat).

Finally, I find it a bit amusing (in a Freudian sense) how you write "selves" when you clearly mean "shelves".

kim fabricius said...

5, Michael - only commentaries need 10.

kim fabricius said...

By the way, I love the parenthesis in Ray Anderson's reference to "Barcelona (Spain)".

I guess that's for American bloggers. Over here in the UK the impression is that Yanks are so bad at geography that they couldn't find their butts in a toilet. Indeed it has been suggested that war is the Lord's way of teaching Americans geography. And there's that joke about Reagan's miscalculation of making a speech at Bitberg, Germany, where SS officers are buried: Reagan, it was said, thought he was going to Pittsburgh.

Ben Myers said...

Kim, my favourite Aussie TV show, The Chaser's War on Everything, has done some hilarious clips on Yanks and geography. See especially this one (on locating the next country to bomb), and this one (on locating various iconic landmarks).

Jim said...

Wow- Yank bashing.... Come on guys. Not all of us are illiterate George Bush-ites. That's like saying all Aussies are drunks or all Irish are sots or all Brits are gay or all Germans are OCD.

But then again....

;-p

Ben Myers said...

Sorry, Jim: no Yank-bashing was intended! I only posted these links since Kim brought up the topic of geography (and since he's a New Yorker himself...).

As for the Chasers: I should point out that they're deliberately offensive, outrageous, scandalous, sometimes even criminal — and this is how they treat everyone, not just Americans! (That's why I love them: their satire is absolutely wicked, and absolutely egalitarian.)

Still, I apologise for any offence....

erin said...

None needed.
I believe that our education like such as South Africa and, uh, the Iraq everywhere like, is ripe pickings for a good sketch.

On Topic:
I roughly divide commentaries in 2 types: technical (grammar/hist-crit, etc.) and theological, for better or worse.

Best, shortest commentary - should be a contest here (!)
Gustavo Gutierrez, Job.

kerry said...

Gutierrez's Job. Bravo!

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