On Becoming Jim Faulconer (Sort of)

Our lesson in elders’ quorum last Sunday was on the importance of scripture study. I shared a story that I frequently share when called upon to say something about studying the scriptures. As I was retelling it this Sunday, however, I had an epiphany: I was being a Jim Faulconer poseur.

The story goes like this: During my first year of law school I joined an informal study group sponsored by a visiting professor of international law. The professor was also an orthodox Jew and the study group was on the Torah rather than GATT or the Geneva Convention. Each student was provided with a copy of Rashi’s commentary on passages dealing with the construction and service of the tabernacle. (Rashi was a great medieval rabbi.) We also went through Esther for Purim.) I was amazed at the amount of meaning that the professor (and Rashi) could wring out of apparently stale passages dealing with construction and procedure. The meaning did not come from any Nibley-esque erudition in the historical context of the scriptures. Rather it came from a painstaking attention to the details of the text and a knowledge of and engagement with all of the different (often playful) glosses that had been given to the text by various rabbis through the ages. What it impressed on me was how much depth one could find by simply carefully and slowly reading the text of the scriptures and asking questions about the text itself.

As I told the story this Sunday, it seemed oddly familiar and then it hit me. This is a story that Jim Faulconer tells. When he was in graduate school, he set up an independent study class with a philosophy professor who was also a rabbi and they did a close reading of the Book of Genesis with similar results. As I recall, Jim’s story had the same moral: slow reading with careful attention to textual detail reveals that the scriptures are much richer than we often assume.

I first heard Jim tell this story when I was an undergrad. Perhaps I sought ought this law professor’s study group with some secret desire to re-enact Jim’s story. It is worth noting on this point, that I basically only tell this story to illustrate Jim’s point about close reading of the scriptures. I could just as easily endow it with other meanings. It was a strange and ecumenical mix of students ranging from Israeli atheists to observant and orthodox Jews to white and black evangelicals to Catholics to me, the lone Mormon. Maybe there is some nugget of meaning in there about religious pluralism. The professor in question got universally bad student reviews as an international law teacher. Yet he was exceptionally warm and engaging as a guide through Leviticus. Again, perhaps there is some moral or meaning here. Yet this is not how I tell the story. Instead, consciously or unconsciously, I tell it as a recapitulation of Jim’s experience.

At the end of the day, I suppose that this is what teachers are supposed to do: Permanently infect the brains of their students. It can be a bit of a blow to one’s pretensions of originality to find that the personality and experiences of others have been grafted, woven, and squished into your own personality and experiences. It runs counter to myths of individualism and intellectual self-sufficiency. Maybe some day I will get my revenge by infecting someone else with my thoughts and experiences.

13 comments for “On Becoming Jim Faulconer (Sort of)

  1. Take comfort from Derrida, Nate.

    “No repetition will ever exhaust the novelty of what comes. Even if one were able to imagine the contents of experience wholly repeated – always the same thing, the same person, the same landscape, the same place and the same text returning – the fact that the present is new would be enough to change everything. Temporalization itself makes it impossible not to be ingenuous in relation to time.”

    Jacques Derrida, A Taste for the Secret, pg. 70

  2. “… slow reading with careful attention to textual detail reveals that the scriptures are much richer than we often assume.”

    Nate, another lesson I could draw from your experience with a rabbi and Jim F.’s experience with a rabbi (and from my own similar experiences of encounters with Jewish scriptural analysis) is that perhaps LDS people ought to ponder consulting Jewish sources and authorities on their scriptural thoughts and opinions (at least with study of the Hebrew Bible) — not because we are going to agree on everything but because each time this happens, LDS folks sure seem to gain an additional measure of insight and appreciation of scripture from the process.

    Admittedly, the process of interacting with Jewish approaches to scripture can present some (significant?) intellectual challenges to a Christian’s faith and testimony but assuming an individual endures the process well, they are all the stronger for having had that experience.

  3. “At the end of the day, I suppose that this is what teachers are supposed to do: Permanently infect the brains of their students.”

    I think this is kinda a narrow reading of your own experience, Nate. By your account, Jim F. just didn’t pawn off some ideas on you that have influenced your own thinking. He inducted you into some of his own experience, which you then sought to imitate. That seems to involve more infection than just the brain.

  4. I could just as easily endow it with other meanings.

    Beautiful, considering all the threads on Derrida.

  5. Take comfort, Nate. I discovered while teaching a lesson at church that I had turned into my father. Not a bad thing, but still a rude shock.

  6. Nate,

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist this:

    I know Jim Faulconer. Jim Faulconer is a friend of mine. . . . (You know the rest.)

    I have to admit I feel most Faulconer-like when I find myself saying “not necessarily” or “this doesn’t necessarily mean” or “it doesn’t necessarily follow.” This kind of careful, slightly contrarion, approach is one of the bugs I caught in his class.

  7. Every time I have homemade gelato, I have a Faulconerian/Proustian experience to my days in Paris, eating their food. Jim never shared his rabbi experience with me, though he did regale us with other tales which I still cherish.

  8. Not being a Faulconer protege, I am less likely to ever feel “Faulconer-ish.” However, even I have a Faulconer story! Everytime I hear or use the word “ontological,” I am reminded of an anecdote Jim F. once shared with me in the halls of the Maeser Building: A student had obviously plagiarized his philosophy paper. The offending passage contained the term “ontological.” Jim asked him, “What does “ontological” mean?” The student responded “I don’t know… I got the word from my Thesaurus.” (Yeah, right.)

    Aaron B

  9. I know how you feel Nate. I’m always telling my wife to forgive me for forgetting our anniversary, because my wedding band was actually remembering it for me.


  10. I’ve vowed not to say anything on this thread, but Greg has made it impossible for me to keep that vow. Priceless! Thanks.

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