David Kelsey on David Bartlett
Yale Divinity School Spring Faculty Dinner
May 3, 2005
Good evening! My paper for this evening's Section of the Society for Biblical Literature is entitled:On Reading David Bartlett's CV: A Narrative Interpretation
An academic's CV is like a haiku with footnotes. The CV is the genre the academy has developed to communicate in as condensed a form as possible the meaning of a person's life in the academy. Curriculum vitae, after all, literally means “the running-course of a life.” It's an odd genre because the way a life has run can really be told only in a narrative, and CV's consist mostly of lists. The lists of books and honors, of articles and reviews, of distinguished lectureships in academies and in churches finally aren't the heart of the matter; they're the footnotes. What matters is what's listed under the headings “Education” and “Employment.” That's the haiku. Connect the dots there and you have the trajectory of a life's running course. Connect the dots and you have a way to chart the plot that gives meaning to an academic life's narrative.
If we were to read David Bartlett's CV as just a list of jobs it would be enough to dishearten a career counselor. Granted, his curriculum vitae begins promisingly enough in the section on “Education:” A B.A from Swarthmore, a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Yale Graduate School. Clearly his career was launched on its trajectory out of some pretty high-powered canons. But then consider the pattern of this curriculum vitae after that. In an academic world of highly focused professional specialization in ever-narrower specialties, conventional wisdom has it that constantly changing fields is a very bad career move. But Bartlett begins as a junior faculty member teaching New Testament at the American Baptist Seminary of the West and the Graduate Theological Union in the Bay Area, only to leave to take up a series of three successive pastorates. Then he goes back to the academy as Professor of Preaching and Worship at Union Seminary, Richmond, Virginia. What would compound his career counselor's distress is the fact that in every city where he had had a pastorate he also held a position teaching in a theological school. Conventional wisdom would read that as a list of career-hops that fairly shouts, “This man can't commit to any one specialization.” You can almost see a career counselor's relief when David finally settled down fifteen years ago as YDS' Lantz Professor of Preaching and Communication and, three years later, became the Dean of Academic Affairs.
But that would just show how wrong it is to read a CV simply as a list of jobs rather than reading it—as they like to say in Bartlett's field—with the hermeneutics of narrative. We all know that the plots of narratives are driven by conflicts. The plot of the narrative outlined by David's CV is driven by a stubborn struggle against the power of academic specializations to divide what many of us believe God has joined together: disciplined study of Scripture and the actual practice of preaching. In his own person he puts the lie to the old adage that in theological education those who can, preach, and those who can't, teach. David's CV is the narrative of how he has managed to spend his life doing both with unexcelled power and grace. Such persons are very rare in theological education and places like YDS especially need as many of them as they can find. In his retirement the school's loss is great.
For a little over a decade I've worked closely with David in several venues. My guess is that I've served with him on more committees, and more kinds of committees, than almost anyone else. On the Curriculum Committee, for one thing, where we debated policy questions that bore on his work as Dean for Academic Affairs. And on faculty search committees, for another: We've taken so many candidates to dinner at Porto Fino's Restaurant that by last year the waitress who's routinely assigned to YDS groups had only to see the two of us walk in to know without asking that it was time to break out the Jack Daniels. And for the last five years our colleague Bryan Spinks and I have had then pleasure of team-teaching with David a course that is not about preaching and in which he functions as New Testament scholar. I've been struck by three qualities that consistently mark how he is in all those contexts.
The first is intellectual honesty, especially about complexity and ambiguity. In debates about policy questions David is quietly firm that every relevant voice must be heard and that the interests behind every voice be identified. No debate is to be resolved before everything is transparently on the table. Reading texts, he pushes us to acknowledge how our first interpretations over-simplified their complexities and how their ambiguities can make it impossible to be absolutely certain about our favored interpretations. Preaching the same texts, he insists that the worlds they are supposed to illuminate are complex tangles, and that the human hearts they are supposed to strengthen are ambiguous all the way down, and that a simplifying gospel is no good news at all. Call it a passion for fairness if you wish. I think of it as a passion for truth.
A second is generosity, both of mind and emotion. In the classroom David's example makes it clear that thoughtfully entertaining someone else's idea is not the same thing as admitting that it might turn out to be right, much less acknowledging that you agree with it. It is simply a matter of an intellectual hospitality that gives an idea, say, about how to interpret a parable, enough air space and time that, if it is at cross-grain to relevant evidence, it will soon enough self-destruct. Such intellectual hospitality to the most unlikely suggestions lets ideas be undermined without undercutting the intellectual energy and engagement of students who have not yet acquired sufficient intellectual discipline or breadth of experience. It is inseparable from emotional generosity. When students and colleagues talk about issues on the table David also hears what they are saying about themselves. One result has been that in role as classroom teacher and as academic administrator David has been simultaneously engaged in a pastoral ministry that does not compromise the integrity of teaching or the impartiality of administration. It has been a gift to the school that this has been a team effort. David and Carol Bartlett's low-key, informal hospitality to all sorts and conditions is legendary. Call this generosity or hospitality or an extraordinary gift for intellectual and emotional empathy if you wish. I think of it as lying at the heart of what the New Testament calls agape.
A third thing I associate with David's way of being among us is laughter. David is not a teller of jokes; he's no stand up comic. But his classes are regularly engulfed in laughter. It is, I suppose, more the laughter evoked by wit than by humor. It is an unstudied, utterly ad hoc wit, frequently self-depreciating, but never at anyone's expense. Mostly it is at the expense of the ridiculous, of scholarly pretentiousness and institutional absurdities, in both church and academy.
However, his wit is not limited to that. It is not well known, but David has a gift for witty light verse. Several years ago Frederick Buechner published a novel about biblical Jacob. Although he called it “Son of Laughter,” I thought it a dark novel written in a gnarly prose. David Bartlett, on the other hand, in his poem “Jacob's Dance,” gives a quite different picture of the Patriarch. I limit myself to the first stanza:
I'm a wise and witty fellow,
Full of wonderment and wile.
I trick the fallible by my wit,
The gullible by my guile.
I am winsome, warm and winning,
I've got gumption, grit and glee,
I'm terribly pleased to be myself
And perfectly proud of me.
Sounds like a prime candidate for admission to YDS.
Almost forty years ago when he was a doctoral student in New Testament and Don. E. Saliers, now on the faculty of Candler School of Theology at Emory University, was a junior faculty member at YDS, the two of them were the Rogers and Hammerstein of American Theological Education. David wrote the book and Saliers the music for a musical that students put on at YDS. It was called “ Elsinore!” and imagined YDS as the court of the Prince of Denmark. The general tenor of the work as a whole can be judged from the first two stanzas of the opening chorus. (The late 60s were a rather more informal and relaxed time than the present and some of the rest of this text may not be suitable in the present cultural situation for public reading in mixed company):
There's going to be a wedding in Elsinore!
They'll have to change the bedding in Elsinore!
The king is barely dead
Who shared her double bed,
but now there is a new king who will take his place instead.
Now everyone's excited in Elsinore!
Though all are not delighted in Elsinore!
The once and future queen
As soon as she had seen
Her husband buried
‘s gladly married,
Isn't that obscene?
These texts are an undiscovered treasure trove for courses in theology and literature. Underneath the surface fun, who can miss the undercurrent of passion for justice for the oppressed housekeeping staff in the castle at Elsinore and the earnest concern for the integrity of family values?
Laughter, of course, can be a cruel and hostile weapon. But the laughter David evokes is more like the laughter appropriate to Shakespeare's comedies. It's the laughter of reconciliations and of weddings. Call it a relief of tension if you like. I think of it as a sign of the presence of the Spirit, the expression of joy for which there are no words.
Passion for truth, agape, laughter; these three abide. Fortunately, we do not have to decide this evening in the case of David Bartlett which of these is the greatest, for he is about to add one more item to the list on his CV. He and Carol retire from us and advance on Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia for a few years. Actually, they have already established an outpost there. So we say to them with deep affection, go well. Go well to the land of Magnolias and Hibiscus, to the land where summers are long and winters mercifully short, to the land of the lotus eaters, even if it is entirely surrounded by Georgia. Go well, dear friends. But do come back soon.