Luke Timothy Johnson
William B. Eerdmans, 278 pages
Published March 22, 2022
My first reading acquaintance with Luke Timothy Johnson was in my first year of seminary when I was assigned his now-classic The Writings of the New Testament. It was accessible, lively and engaging, and I quickly had the impression of Johnson as a scholar who was attuned to the needs and interests of the church.
The Mind in Another Place is a different kind of work. It is not, strictly speaking, a memoir, but it is an intellectual autobiography interwoven with events and experiences from the author’s life, including eight years as a Benedictine monk, marriage to a divorced woman with six children and a time of media celebrity as a critic of the Jesus Seminar. An account of a particular scholarly life, it is also a commendation of this kind of life for those who have the requisite qualities. (The title is a response to the classic stereotype of the absent-minded professor whose mind is not exactly “absent” but passionately engaged with questions not germane to the immediate situation.)
Johnson, who retired from the faculty of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in 2016, has produced a body of work that meets many of the needs and desires of working pastors and preachers: an approach to biblical interpretation that valorizes the experience of believers, a model for ecclesial decision-making based on hermeneutics rather than leadership strategies, and a way of reading the Bible focused more on a text’s literary characteristics, and what they reveal of the author’s theological purposes, than on historical context.
Johnson notes the influence of existential thinkers, with their emphasis on human experience, on his work. He determined early in his career that he would not be a “student of texts alone, but of texts as transparent to existence in the world.” This scholarly aim was brought to fruition in his 2015 work, The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art.
I would have liked to see more attention given to the questions that have engaged Johnson over the years and less attention to his academic resume. A few sections drag with long recitations of his accomplishments, and there is a fair amount of academic shop talk (I occasionally had the impression he was settling scores with academic rivals.) If he is generous in praise of himself, though, he is also generous in praise of others, not only his colleagues but also indispensable copyeditors and friendly critics.
The best chapters are those that treat the intellectual and moral virtues needed for (and called forth by) a life of scholarship. This book will be of greatest interest to those discerning whether to pursue an advanced degree and a career in academia as well as those seeking an overview of Johnson’s body of work.
Theological scholarship, though dealing with ultimate things, is subordinate to the existential task of seeking God, and Johnson attests to his overriding interest in living a holy life. In the end, he says, his own work will “join the great river of forgetfulness that flows into the ocean of oblivion … All the more important, then, that I did my work taking delight in the process rather than in the expectation of success.”
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