Friday, February 12, 2010

Seminary Reflections: An Uncommon Language

The conventional wisdom around Princeton Seminary campus — and most seminaries, I’d readily assume — is that you’re either a Greek person or a Hebrew person. The logic, as I understand it, is that the two languages, both needed for ordination, require such different kinds of mental exercise that most students will find themselves drawn much more strongly to one than the other.

The implication is presumably that your experience of learning Biblical language is, among other things, a particularly dorky kind of personality test. Just tack it on to that profile I sent to Presbytery, thanks.

For me, there is no doubt that the two were drastically different experiences. I took Greek over the summer, my first coursework here at PTS. For eight weeks I labored: four hours a day of class, untold more sitting at my desk, translating inane sentences about slaves who threw rocks at boats and children who eat bread in the desert. In Greek, my challenge was always about grammatical systems. It was a language I learned in Excel: each week brought new charts and graphs, each night new opportunities to join my wife on the couch while endlessly reproducing paradigm upon paradigm.

I will not soon forget the first moments, maybe two weeks in to that course, when we were first invited to open our Greek New Testaments and to read (with struggle, perspiration, and no small amount of coaching). It was as if, after years of riding in the back seat, somebody had just handed me the keys. The text opened before me to the horizon, even though I could rarely get out of first gear.

Hebrew never offered me anything like daylight or open road. I took the first half during the fall semester, and the second half during PTS’ relatively-new intensive January term. As it began, so too did the full bore of my first full semester, with multiple other classes and commitments, Field Ed and CPE applications and interviews, and a whole host of new friendships and networks to discover. Hebrew got my attention, but it had to be shared, doled out in bite-sized chunks.

And what Hebrew gave back was, for several months, overwhelming and bewildering. Gone were the connections to any languages I knew, gone were the vocabulary cognates, gone were letters that looked or sounded like anything I’d ever seen. In its place was something so foreign to me that I responded with fear and hostility. I wanted no part of it. Each grammatical rule felt both arbitrary and as if the exceptions outnumbered the norms. I tried to wrap my head around vowel reduction and syllabification still without being able to name and pronounce half of the alphabet. Everything was up to my neck.

But at some point – and I’m still not sure when this was – I started to get it. Not in one moment, not with a lightbulb sketched inside thought bubbles pouring out of the cartoon version of my head. But nonetheless, I started to feel my way through. I survived the semester and came back in January for the intensive term, and all of a sudden I found that I had grown a new tool for Hebrew: instinct. It wasn’t exactly a text laid bare before me, but I could feel my way around. It wasn’t a knowledge I could ever write in a spreadsheet. At best, it was a dim flashlight on a foggy night. Maybe that makes it even more valuable.

I started by echoing the adage that, around these parts, most people are either one or the other, personalities who are suited better to Greek or to Hebrew. Doubtless I experience the two languages in very different ways. But as I take on the task of reflecting on my time at Seminary, both personally and now as the inheritor of this column, I see all around me both of those languages of learning.

To be sure, there are days of revelation, days where seminary seems to be filling in those gaps I knew I had, giving me a glimpse at the whole landscape before me, handing me the keys. There is something undeniably joyous about this, about feeling like I have come to a place that has known me already, and that with just a few chats & graphs we will be on our way. To be secure in the knowledge that I have come to the right place is a wonderful and gracious thing, and I thank God for it.

But just as often are the days where I am just feeling my way through the fog, where this campus, this vocation, this intentional life, feels so deeply unfamiliar that nothing in my past and nothing in my brain can help me along. As familiar as the language of PTS can be on some days, on others it can be equally disorienting, confusing, and wholly foreign, and I know I am expected to form phrases and sentences even as I still can’t remember all the letters. But I also know that I am developing instinct. I know that I can learn to feel in the dark, and I think that such knowledge is just as wonderful and gracious a gift.

That ended up longer than I expected.

If you’ve made it this far, know this: I’m thrilled to be joining up with Presbyterian Bloggers, and thrilled to be reflecting on my time at PTS over the next few years. Hopefully I’ll be able to find new metaphors each month that I can overflog as I have overflogged a few today. If you’ve got any ones you’d like to suggest, don’t hesitate to write!


John Edward Harris said...

After learning most of my koine Greek in college followed by a refresher in seminary, when it came time for biblical Hebrew I discovered that God had gifted me with a Hebrew personality rather than a Greek personality, though neither personality were particularly strong. To this day, over twenty-five years later, I still argue that most seminaries teach biblical languages out of sequence. It was not until I was learning Hebrew that I discovered the writers of the New Testament were in many cases imitating the Hebrew Scriptures they were familiar with, whether they were familiar with them in the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. Once I was familiar with Hebrew I found reading and translating the Greek New Testament was a little easier. So I argue that seminarians ought to learn Hebrew before Greek. That is the way my wife did it and she has never regretted it.

Welcome to the world of Presbyterian Bloggers, be they blogging in Hebrew, Greek or English.

Gannet Girl said...

I started with Greek -- people told me that as a lawyer I would appreciate its logic and structure. What a NIGHTMARE. All I really did first year was Greek -- 35, 40 hours a week. I had to fit everything else into the tiny crevices that sometimes opened here and there in the week. Friends who occasionally borrowed notes for other classes used to crack up because I had filled the margins with Greek paradigms. I couldn't not think about Greek for an hour, because I forgot everything within seconds of learning it.

Hebrew wasn't much easier, although I took it last summer and often thought that perhaps it would have been had I had been able to think in terms of weeks rather than hours. At any rate, I did conclude that people who score 100% intuitive on the Meyers Briggs and every subscale thereof should be exempt from Greek.

And such people would seem from my experience to be much better suited for ministry than law!

The Pinkhammer said...

Something to look forward to I guess. : )

She Rev said...

I was a Hebrew girl from the start. I had Latin in high school for three years which left me with no time for Greek. For all practical purposes, I had "been there, done that" (in terms of the grammatical system.) To me the screwier looking the alphabet, the better the language (hence the Russian I took in college).

Almost 8 years post-graduation my fluency is all but lost which saddens me. I swore I would be one of those who always did my own translation, but starting professional ministry as an associate pastor who preached only monthly and then with it on TOP of all my other duties, the rhythm never developed. Now as I solo pastor I eye my books every once in a while, but I haven't made a commitment to try to relearn things. Maybe someday....

Sarahlynn said...

This was fun to read. Welcome aboard!