I frequently tell the story of how I “learned to read” in college. Usually, I share this story in order to encourage people who struggle with reading comprehension. Today, I want to tell it for a different purpose. The breakthrough took place while working through Craig Evans’ From Prophecy to Testament: The Function of the Old Testament in the New (FPTT). This book was required reading for a class taught by Dr. Paula Qualls at Gardner-Webb University, and I struggled immensely to understand it. I remember being so angry for having to read it. I thought it was over my head, irrelevant, and overly critical, to put it politely. Of course, I told her about it, and when I spoke, I’m sure my tone was less than properly respectful.
The program in which I was enrolled (and from which I graduated) was designed to help adults with full-time employment earn their bachelor’s degree. The average student in the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy was a (at least aspiring) pastor or minister heavily involved in a local church in the area around Boiling Springs, North Carolina. The students I studied with were fantastic people, but when we entered the program, hardly any of us were acquainted with the genre of modern academic essays. Thankfully, most of my classmates didn’t respond as emotionally as I did.
Nevertheless, I poured over each essay in FPTT, reading them all multiple times, struggling to merely grasp the thesis of each, until one day the light came on. It started with the last paragraph of A. J. Drodge’s “‘No One Has Ever Seen God’: Revisionary Criticism in the Fourth Gospel.” I understood the last paragraph and slowly worked my way backwards through the entire essay–an unconventional way of reading, but one that worked on that day! As I took notes in the margin, it started to make sense one paragraph at a time. I found hope. I thought to myself, “You can understand this material! Forget about speed! Linger over it till you get it! You will get it!”
Over the past few years, I have flipped through the book a few times and noted how my perspective on critical scholarship has shifted from cynicism to gratefulness. It is certainly true that the more you study, the more you learn. But ironically, at the same time, you find out how much more there is to know. Your questions multiply; your world is enlarged at a rate greater than the rate of your growth. This is a good problem. The questions are no longer “their questions,” they’re yours. Because I now understand where the questions of a book like FPTT are coming from, what I once considered “overly critical” and “skeptical” I now consider thoughtful.
This evening, I returned to FPTT and greatly benefited from it. As research for an exegetical paper, I reread Rikk E. Watts’ “Immanuel: Virgin Birth Proof Text or Programmatic Warning of Things to Come (Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23)?” I found his discussion of the Immanuel passages in Isaiah immensely helpful and concise, his understanding of Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 very persuasive. I’m thankful I kept the book, but I’m even more thankful for Paula Qualls and the many professors like her that God has placed in my path. They get the credit for my benefit from books like this. I ran into her a couple years ago at SBL and was thrilled to see her. In that moment, I wasn’t able to put into words exactly why.
I benefit from critical scholarship because I’ve had teachers who insisted that I wrestle with it. Most importantly, they were teachers who modeled the humility and grace necessary to engage an opinion that one might initially find irritating. In dealing with our emotional, often ill-informed reactions, Dr. Qualls always responded with the utmost patience. She responded to angry tones firmly, but sympathetically and always respectfully. She was leading us into the deep end and teaching us to swim, while we were kicking and screaming–at least I was. She never “went off” on us, though I’m sure there were times we deserved it. This is the type of education that makes one not only a better scholar, but a more virtuous person. For this, I’ll eternally be grateful.
I could tell similar stories about each of the professors with whom I studied at Gardner-Webb: Ron Williams, Eddie Stepp, Joe Collins, Kent Blevins, Perry Hildreth, Alice Cullinan, and Danny West. They all deserve accolades. Since graduation, I’ve always spoken well of my experience at Gardner-Webb. They taught us to think and to engage the text. Whether or not we agreed, they always respected good arguments made from the text.