May 5, 2009

Frozen pizza and Bible commentaries

There is something slightly miraculous to me about the frozen pizza one can buy at the store.  One simply unwraps it, heats it in an oven (convection ovens work particularly well) and in 10 minutes one has, in most cases, an exceptionally delicious pizza.  I’ve actually cooked bread.  While the local pizzeria may be able to produce an even more delicious pie (although, the best of the frozen pizzas I’ve had can hold their own), by the time I bring such a pizza home, it’s cooled slightly and can’t compete with the crisp, super-delicious taste treat that comes out of my oven.  So despite its drawbacks, frozen pizza is frankly pretty good.

The disturbing aspect of frozen pizza is that it is just too easy.  Right now it is 12:15 on a Tuesday morning; while I undoubtedly could find some pizza parlor to which I might schlep over and order pizza, it certainly does not compare in convenience to the frozen pizza in my freezer – a variety of delicious tastes, available in 10 minutes –anytime I desire it.

And so, there is something slightly wicked about frozen pizza.  It has taken the ceremony out of eating pizza.  No longer am I going out with friends and sitting in the pizzeria, waiting for the pizza to come out and be served.  The aspect of locality of space is gone (the pizza is cooked in my house, with me in my bathrobe, rather than at the restaurant where it is formally served by waiters); the aspect of ceremony is gone (I cook the pizza because I enjoy it, and not for the ambience of the pizza parlor and to chat with friends); the aspect of locality of time is gone (whenever I am peckish – at 3 in the morning or at 2:30 in the afternoon, the pizza is available when I need it.)

Consider the Saturday Matinee Broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera of New York.  Of course, in the highest society (if one were living in New York), actual attendance – locality in space – was preserved. This was an event, one dresses up for it, brings in a libretto – and enjoys a magnificent performance.  But America – at least outside of New York and the wealthy circles – soon learned to love the Texaco broadcasts.  They were magnificent, and live (thus preserving the locality of time). Moreover, the supplemental features soon learned to take on their own life (indeed, Father M. Owen Lee’s witty intermission commentary has been anthologized in a number of volumes, such as this one.)  This was pure middle-brow joy – performances where all America was democratic – all America was constructing mental images of the staging, listening to the live Met broadcast.  Even listening on my own as a kid growing up, I felt I was a member of the Metropolitan Opera. 

Of course the Metropolitan Matinee Broadcasts still continue (you can find the details here).   And, of course, you can always listen to a streaming station, such as WQXR in New York, to listen to the broadcast – a little less “live” after Internet latency, but perhaps sufficiently close in time to count as a shared group experience with the other listeners across the US.

But things are a bit different now.  The frozen pizza level of convenience has begun to emerge.   You can sign up for the Met Player and watch, on your computer, 20 high definition television broadcasts, 42 ordinary television broadcasts, and 150 radio broadcasts.  These are available anytime you wish.  (Many of these are available on DVD and CD should you prefer to avoid using a computer).  And now the MET rebroadcasts live performances in high definition in movie theaters across the country.  I must confess I have not attended one of these – my home projection system is better than many theaters, and is certainly more convenient.   And now there is a permanent Sirius XM radio station (indeed, as I am typing this, I am listening to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on XM satellite radio.)

Now in many ways this far more convenient, and not just as a way of watching opera anywhere and anytime.  I can pull out my opera commentaries (there are a vast number – more than you likely imagine) and follow along with a written lecture teaching me about the salient features of the opera to which I am listening to.  But in another sense, a cord has been broken – I have moved to the frozen pizza model – I am no loner sharing space, time, and ceremony with others listening to an opera.

Now, I wish to speak about Bibles.  For me, listening to the Bible is a fixed even in time and space.  According the story, the Torah was given to Moses at Sinai, and entire books (e.g., Deuteronomy) are records of speeches by prophets.  There can be little doubt that both oral and written transmission figured heavily.  But for the synagogue, the oral transmission happens when the cantor lifts the Torah and reads the words, off of the ancient sheets of animal skin parchment, written in the classic way.   And it seems to me the same in other congregations – when the Bible is read from the grand lectionary volume or chanted in Latin, Greek, Slavonic, or any other language – when the preacher opens his leather bound volume and says “let us turn to this book at this chapter” and starts reading aloud – these all create strong holy moments for us bound up in space and time and community and ceremony.  We can listen to an MP3 reading of Scripture on our iPod, but it is not at all the same.  It’s the frozen pizza level.

But for me, the most remarkable thing is the Bible class.  Here, we have seen some remarkable commentary forms that truly bring to the reader much of the experience of such a class.  There are hundreds of different study Bibles, each with advantages and disadvantages, but at the end of the day, I think the most serious ones recreating the experience of a secular or mainstream religious classroom share these characteristics:  long book introductions that introduce the theme of individual books, detailed annotations addressing individual phrases of interest and larger sections in the text, and then detailed essays addressing points of interest.  Such a volume is, in many ways, a course in a volume – ready to replay in the reader’s head as he reads the Bible.

Notable in particular are the excellent Oxford Study Bibles;

  • The RSV-based New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, expanded edition still regarded as the academic conservative standard bearer of study Bibles.  The commentary and introductions are terse and intelligent, and the 45 pages of essays are brief but useful.
  • The NRSV-based New Oxford Annotanted Bible with the Apocrypha Augmented Third Edition is perhaps the most popular text used in college courses today.  It features considerably longer book introductions, somewhat longer commentary (and, its critics claim, more liberal commentary) and the essays have been expanded to 100 pages (and because of the way they are printed, actually represent closer to 150 pages).  This is a book that one can actually sit down with and learn from directly.
  • The NJPS-based Oxford Jewish Study Bible represents an attempt to put secular commentary on the Hebrew Bible in a standard format.  The typesetting is beautiful, but the greatest value comes from the long 300+ pages of highly intelligent essays (again, printed densely – probably closer to 500 pages in they were printed in standard format.)  Because of those essays and the extended commentary, this book has quickly become (according to an unscientific survey I conducted) the leading text for courses in the Hebrew Bible in secular institutions.
  • The rather different NAB-based Oxford Catholic Study Bible, 2nd editionBecause the NAB translation includes extensive notes and book introductions as part of its standard text, this volume includes an entirely separate 525 page long commentary, which is indexed in the Biblical text.  The introductory commentary is useful, but the experience is a bit like using a single volume commentary, and perhaps there are better choices (such as the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible discussed below.)  Still, one cannot but help sense the enthusiasm of one Amazon reviewer who wrote about it being a supplement for RCIA classes.
  • Now we move into non-Oxford Bibles, the first being the Society of Biblical Literature-sponsored NRSV-based HarperCollins Study Bible, 2nd edition (with Apocrypha).  Similar in many ways to the New Oxford Annotated Bibles (but without the supplementary essays), I am less fond of this volume with its poor production values sloppy editing, and heavily redundant notes.  It is less a guide to broader themes in the text, and more a commentary on individual verses.  Still, the actual contributors are known for their high pedigree and this is a useful reference volume for me.
  • Abingdon’s NRSV-based New Interpreter’s Study Bible (with Apocrypha) is especially useful because it mixes scholarly commentary with a generally liberal outlook on scriptural and pastoral issues.  The notes here are long and look more like mini-lectures in some cases, and short explanatory essays (as well as book introductions) are scattered throughout the book.  Someone dissatisfied with the dry tone of the above volumes will find this book to be the most like a lecture course.
  • It does not contain a Bible translation, but the single volume Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible deserves special mention – it is perhaps the closest to a careful set of analytical lectures on the Bible, and as a separate single-volume commentary can be used with your favorite translation.
  • An unusual and highly intelligent stand-alone single volume commentary that deserves special mention is Rober Alter and Frank Kermode’s Literary Guide to the Bible (Harvard University Press).  This work surveys the entire length of Scripture with highly opinionated comment on literary features of the Bible (a fact often underplayed in most commentaries)  It is not a verse-by-verse or section-by-section as with the above commentaries, but rather is a book-by-book discussion of literary techniques from the word and phrase level to broad thematic themes.  This book has, more than any other, influenced my thinking about the Bible, and I found it to be revelatory in a way that few other commentaries are.  This book also very much feels like a series of long lectures – I can smell the chalk dust as I read it.

To me, these volumes are a bit like frozen pizza.  They are incredibly convenient – you can pick one up at any time and enjoy it, and while they may fall short of a full lecture-based course, they are nutritious and provide the next best thing.  If one works through one of these study Bibles, one will have an excellent grasp of Scripture. 

These volume reproduce well enough the experience of sitting in a secular or mainstream seminary classroom, but what about different forms of teaching.  For example, in Judaism, shiurim and chavrusa study, together with great use of medieval commentaries, provides a fundamentally different type of learning experience.  In my next entry, I will consider the “frozen pizza” of Jewish study Bibles – works that help to simulate the unique form of Jewish pedagogical method.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Your "frozen pizza" metaphor is delightful.

I'm also a fan of the Eerdman's Commentary on the Bible. The contributors and editors are thoughtful, and interact with scholarship creatively from a conservative viewpoint. I was also pleasantly surprised by the appearance of a full commentary on 1 Enoch, the first in any single-volume Bible commentary that I know of. In contrast, though the production value of the Oxford Bible Commentary is higher, the commentary seemed rote, and rather lackluster, a collection of stock interpretations, with no challenge at all to the liberal mindset it was designed for. That's just boring.

How does the "Augmented" 3rd edition of the New Oxford Annotated Bible compare to the 3rd edition, if you have it? I wasn't really all that impressed by the changed lineup between the 2nd and 3rd editions. Metzger and the translator-contributors were all booted in favor of a bunch of then-unknowns. It's certainly more liberal, but then the lion's share of the first edition, but then the majority of that commentary dates from the late 1950s and early 1960s, so it's only relatively so.

I remember my reaction to the mixed bag that is the HarperCollins Study Bible first edition. I loved the Milgrom commentary on Leviticus, where he picks apart the NRSV translation, and manages to pretty effectively convey the gist of his three-volume A(Y)B commentary. For some of the books, though, I remember thinking, "Why on earth did they ask him/her to do *that* book?" The quality varied too much. I don't think I'd go for a second edition. The Oxford Annotated editions are much more consistent, quality-wise.

And thanks for the reminder about the Alter & Kermode Literary Guide to the Bible. For whatever reason, I didn't have it. My copy will arrive in a few days. I'm looking forward to it and sure to enjoy it.

I'll look into the others as well. Your recommendations are compelling.

Theophrastus said...

Kevin --

You are right on both score. The third NOAB is a step back form the second (which still had Metzger as an editor). Unfortunately, that edition is out of print (which is a pity, because the commentary improved between the 1st edition [still in print as the RSV NOAB] and the 2nd. It is not hard to find on the used market, though.)

The Augmented 3rd edition includes a few more black and white maps and slightly rewritten book introductions. If I didn't point out the difference to you, you would likely not notice it.

HCSB actually was "better" in the 1st edition than the second, in the way that the NEB was "better" than the REB -- the commentary was more lively and original. You are right -- with all these volumes, the commentary is uneven. Nothing to be done about that.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I was fortunate to find for myself a very nice copy of the OAB 2nd edition back when it was in print. It's black Moroccan leather (that beautifully pebbly, glossy, true Moroccan leather) with some beautiful gold wave detailing along the inner edge. Thumb-indexed, too, and in a very nice font with generous margins. It's a beauty.

You're absolutely right about the improvement of the commentary between the OAB1 and OAB2. The changes to the articles were also improvements, most memorable of which were Metzger's inclusion in an article on the Apocrypha of a selection of examples of "Apocrypha-based art" from the chapter "The Pervasive Influence of the Apocrypha" in his book An Introduction to the Apocrypha. Frankly, it's the only chapter that's aged at all well.

Fun stuff!