It looks like I haven’t been keeping to my monthly blogterview goal :S I do apologize. But if it’s any comfort, you can pop over to my personal blog to take a peek at what controversies I’ve been churning out.
But I haven’t been completely inactive! For this month’s blogterview, we have Mark V Hoffman, a pastor and professor who blogs at Biblical Studies and Technological Tools. Mark also previously hosted a travel seminary to Turkey and Greece in 2004, and will be organizing another trip early next year.
Read some of Mark’s favourite verses that have followed him through the years here.
HH: Thanks for setting aside time from your busy schedule for this interview! I know you have been rather busy, and have recently taught an intensive Greek intro class, so I really appreciate the extra effort!
For starters, tell us about yourself – Why did you choose to leave behind your engineering route and become a pastor?
Mark: The accurate answer is that I didn’t choose to become a pastor, but God chose me! I switched from an Engineering to Religious Studies major as a sophomore at the University of Illinois, but I did not do so joyfully. I had been raised in a church-going family and attended parochial grade school from 2nd-8th grade with Bible and catechism memory work every day. That shaped me in important ways, but somehow I had perceived that being a Christian was something of a burden which mainly was about being good and trying to be better. I chose engineering because of the job prospects.
I was starting to get into Computer Science (and the UofI was a pioneer on the AARPNET and video terminals, so it was an exciting time), but there was that the nagging thought that I ought to be doing something more significant. I went through some personal and spiritual searching once I started taking Bible and religion courses in that secular and academic setting. It certainly was not like I had been taught back in parochial grade school! It really wasn’t until seminary that I discovered the joy of being called to a pastoral ministry, and I realized that it had been God directing my life all along. It’s wonderful to find what I get to do instead of being burdened with the stuff I thought I had to do.
HH: Pastoral leadership is quite a heavy responsibility. What encourages you to keep on going?
Mark: It’s a bit different now teaching at a seminary, but I was a parish pastor for 14 years before starting at Gettysburg. I do understand my teaching position as my ministry calling, and there are “heavy responsibilities” both in the parish and the seminary. What keeps me going? Foremost, I enjoy what I’m doing, and all along I’ve felt like I’ve been doing what I should be doing. There are great rewards in making connections with people and being part of their life and faith journeys, whether it’s sharing Communion with someone hungry for God’s presence or having a student come to some exegetical insight. Both as pastor and professor, it’s an awesome and amazing responsibility to have people trust me and think that I can provide guidance. I really have a blast teaching, but one thing I miss from the parish is the opportunity to be involved in people’s lives from birth to death. Not many vocations offer that range of interaction with all the joys and sorrows that mark the steps of people’s lives.
HH: I see that you hosted a travel seminar to Turkey and Greece in 2004 and are going again early next year. What are the trip highlights?
Mark: We have added some new stops on our upcoming trip, but of the places I’ve visited, I most enjoy Ephesus, Philippi, and Corinth. Part of their appeal is simply their close connection with Paul, but it is also partly because these sites have enough restored that you kind of get a feel for the place and can stand in spots mentioned in the New Testament. I’m thinking of places like the agora in Philippi (Acts 17) or the bêma in Corinth (Acts 18) or the theater in Ephesus (Acts 19). In addition to these significant sites, I also enjoy interacting with the people and cultures of Turkey and Greece and eating their food!
HH: In your opinion, how important is it for the average Christian to understand Scripture? In our previous interview with Julie Ferwerda, she expressed her belief that the lay person should study texts in Greek and Hebrew with the help of simple tools, and not simply rely on scholars or theologians to interpret it for them. Would you agree with her? If so, what tools would you recommend to help someone get started?
Mark: Well, the obvious answer is that it is very important for the average Christian to understand Scripture. I suspect your real question is about the level of expertise in reading Scripture that we might hope or expect the average Christian to have. I may be a ‘professional’ in the field of biblical studies, but my goal is not simply to be an answer repository for the questions the average Christian may have. Instead, my goal is to equip my students (either at seminary or in a congregation) to ask the right questions and know how to go about getting answers for themselves. I am aware that a little knowledge can be dangerous, and I have most often encountered this problem in faulty exegetical claims made by preachers (who hopefully have received original language training).
Nonetheless, I think it is worthwhile and important for every Christian to read the Bible with understanding, and that is going to require some engagement with the original languages. Technology—by which I mean Bible software and online resources—has made this possible in a way that we couldn’t do 10 years or so ago. I think the way to come at this for most people is to compare English translations, using a variety of literal and dynamic/functional ones. (I also encourage people to use Eugene Peterson’s The Message. I realize that it can only loosely be called a translation, but, besides its readability, Peterson really did work with the Hebrew and Greek.) A careful comparison of the English versions will usually highlight when there is a difficulty in the original texts, be it a text critical or translation issue, and that’s when a person can start doing some work in the original languages. The notes in The NET Bible and its online counterpart are particularly helpful at pointing out such textual matters that need to be considered.
I’ve tried to compile a web page guide of “Suggested Resources for Basic Bible Study” and another one for “Technological Resources for Studying and Teaching Scripture” that should get people started in the right direction, and many of these resources are free or low-cost.
HH: Based on your background in computer studies, what do you think of Voxbiblia? Despite seeing a push towards encouraging Christians to study the Bible in depth, a large number of Christians barely find the time or motivation to really understand the Bible. Voxbiblia tries to cater to this by allowing users to sort and search for passages that relate to their present circumstances. Do you think this feature is useful?
Mark: I commend Voxbiblia for its mission of using “the most advanced technology to bring down the thresholds to Bible usage.” Its focus on providing the Bible in audio makes it somewhat distinctive, but the “Thematical Bible Albums” is probably what makes it unique. For people who don’t know where to start with Bible reading this thematic approach can be quite helpful.
It also reminds me of a Bible I once had that a page of references for “When you are…” which included a list of situations or emotions. I suspect many people have something going on in their lives that has motivated them to think about looking in the Bible for insight. You won’t necessarily get to the passages in the Bible that might be most helpful simply by doing a word search on “grief,” for example. Developing a more extensive repertoire of such thematic approaches is a good direction for Voxbiblia to take.
HH: We’re also trying to develop a more extensive repertoire, so if anyone is interested in sharing and building our thematic library with us, please let us know! We’d appreciate it!
HH: And so, a final question to lighten the mood of this interview – If you could sit down and have a cuppa tea with anyone in the Bible, who would it be?
Mark: Being a New Testament scholar, I’ll limit my range to NT people, and I will eliminate the most obvious choices of Jesus or Peter or John or Paul. A person who intrigues me is Barnabas. He is first mentioned in Acts 4.36, so he was part of the earliest community of believers. He travelled all around the Roman Empire with Paul and seems to have been well connected with both the Jerusalem community and the Pauline communities. Paul appears to have had a falling out with him (Acts 15.39 and Gal 2.13), but I think it’s because Barnabas was trying to mediate between the competing factions. I suspect he would be far more pleasant company for tea than Paul!
HH: Once again, thank you for spending time to give our readers a little peek into your life! I hope your Greek class went well!
Interview by Chong Hui Hui
Marketing & Communications Manager of Voxbiblia.com