Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Heidi M. Szpek, ed. Voices from the University: The Legacy of the Hebrew Bible (New York\Lincoln\Shanghai: Writers Club Press, 2002).  Pp. ix + 316.  Paper, $US22.95.  ISBN 0595256198.

            The essays in this book were produced by undergraduates in a course at Central Washington University (Ellensburg, Washington) entitled The Legacy of the Hebrew Bible.  As such, the topics covered deal with an array of issues and perspectives thought to have been influenced in some way by the contents of the Hebrew Bible.  Among these are land, popular culture (e.g., Jerry Springer), art, political theory, poetry, philosophy, creation(ism), feminism, clothing, prophecy, mysticism, and broader cultural or moral issues (sexuality, interest rates, economics, religion).

            Discussing the impact of the Hebrew Bible on culture broadly conceived is certainly a laudable enterprise.  At the same time, there is little acknowledgment that the Hebrew Bible’s main impact on Western Culture was a function of its role in Christianity as a majority religious tradition.  This does not necessarily mean that either the course or the essays needed to use the nomenclature of “Old Testament”—a distinctively Christian term (though some of the essays use “Hebrew Bible” and “Old Testament” more or less interchangeably).  Still, an essay, or perhaps an introductory comment, that dealt with the difference between an “Old Testament” that along with a “New Testament” constitutes the Christian Bible and a “Hebrew Bible” that is properly a function of Judaism would have been helpful.  Perhaps even some explication of what is meant by the popular term “Judeo-Christian” as it relates to the Bible (in its Jewish and Christian guises) might have been illuminating.

            It is difficult not to affirm the book’s project, both in terms of the history of ideas or cultural analysis.  At the level of pedagogy, assigning students to write papers on the Hebrew Bible’s varied impact on ideas or culture is an excellent approach. 

            However, I am puzzled about the wisdom of converting these essays into a book.  The problem is not that some essays are stronger than others, for it is all but a truism that even books which contain essays written by specialists are “uneven.”  Rather, the problem turns on the fact that while the students who wrote these essays doubtless learned a great deal, any who read them cannot equally be expected to benefit.  More than anything else, what one learns from these essays is how modern university students conceived of and executed their assignments.

            The question is: Why might a reader be interested in that?  These essays are precisely what one would expect from undergraduate essays.  They are amateurish, given to infelicitous expression, replete with grammatical, syntactical, and spelling errors, confused about methodological issues, and unaware of standard scholarly literature on the various topics (the indiscriminate appeal to sources from the internet is unfortunate).  These student authors are generally un-self-critical about their own social or religious location, often ignoring what the biblical text actually says, and given to overgeneralizations about both the Bible and culture.  In short, they have produced the sort of work that one expects from undergraduates.  They should not be criticized for that (though by no means are all the essays “A” level work even for undergraduates).  But why others should be encouraged to read such a book escapes me. 

            I suppose if the book had been competently edited, a more positive assessment might be in order.  But the editing is deplorable.  It doubtless seems curmudgeonly to be so negative toward what these students produced.  In point of fact, I applaud their efforts.  My criticism has to do with converting an excellent undergraduate assignment into a book.  If one is curious about how undergraduates write, think, or research, then there is some merit in this book.  But if one is interested in the topic the book is dedicated to—assessing the impact of the Bible on culture—then this book should remain on the shelf.

Frank Anthony Spina
Seattle Pacific University