A caller phones Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and asks to speak to Dr. Ben Witherington III. “I’m afraid he can’t talk right now,” the receptionist says. He’s writing a new book.” Nonplussed, the caller replies, “Never mind. I’ll just hold.” With more than forty books to his credit, including socio-rhetorical commentaries on every book of the New Testament, one is tempted to suspect that the prolific author (who calls himself “BW3” on his website at: www.BenWitherington.com ) really does crank out books that fast — which suspicion, of course, would be a mistake.
Witherington repeats the joke on himself in his latest volume, titled Is There a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 156 pages, 2011). Unlike his other works, this volume sometimes does have the feel of a fast production. For example, two times it speaks of testing one’s “metal” (instead of “mettle” (p. 26, 148), refers to a “petition wall” instead of a “partition wall” (p. 56), and misquotes John G. Whittier’s poem Maud Muller (p. 32), then repeats the misquote even after looking up the poet’s years of birth and death (p. 148).
For anyone who does not know already, Witherington is a Methodist scholar who regularly appears as a guest on top television network programs, whose books have been featured in The New York Times and chosen “Book of the Year” by Christianity Today magazine. Now, in this behind-the-scenes look at higher education, Witherington gets right down with the reader in first person narrative and sometimes stream-of-consciousness style. The book combines the scholarly patois of its distinguished author, who earned his own PhD under the late C. K. Barrett in Durham, U.K., with folksy idiom retained from a childhood in High Point, N.C.
Several chapter titles include Latin phrases: In Principio Erat Verbum (“In the Beginning Was the Word”), Ad Fontes (“Back to the Source”), and Summa Theologica (“The Sum of Theology”). But another chapter is called “Priming the Pump,” an important task that some of us oldtimers recall doing to start the water flow. Witherington mentions someone “hollering,” confesses that he is a two-finger typist, and begins with a self-deprecating story about ripping the seat of his pants while rushing to board a plane en route to a speaking engagement. He might occupy the ivory towers of advanced learning, BW3 reminds us, but he has not forgotten his roots or the people from whom he sprang.
For those considering pursuing a PhD program in a biblical field, this book offers much practical help, in both “story and advice” (as the subtitle promises) — on choosing a mentor, deciding between an American and a British degree, mastering the language requirements, writing a dissertation and more. It also offers wise counsel regarding personal relationships with mentor, spouse, and those to and for whom one writes and preaches.
The person not considering a doctorate will find here an interesting and entertaining account by one who has reached the pinnacle in his scholarly field but who retains his common touch. Witherington has not forgotten who and whose he is, and he understands that the purpose of scholarship ultimately is not to be a scholar. Rather it is to teach the Scriptures more meaningfully to the non-scholarly folk for whose sake one rightly becomes a scholar — those “real” people who validate the scholar by reading or listening to what he or she finally has to convey.