THE MIND IN ANOTHER PLACE: My Life as a Scholar. By Luke Timothy Johnson. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2022. X + 268 pages.
I enjoy reading well-written memoirs by figures who inhabit similar spaces as me. Thus, being a pastor and a scholar, reading the memoir of a person like Luke Timothy Johnson is enticing. I don’t remember if it was his commentary on the Book of Acts, which I relied upon during my brief tenure as a professor teaching the Book of Acts, or his somewhat controversial response to the Jesus Seminar, which I largely agreed with —The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus & the Truth of the Traditional Gospels—but I have long respected Johnson’s scholarship and willingness to take on his colleagues when and if he believed it necessary. I knew a bit of his story before I had the opportunity, thanks to Eerdmans to read and review his memoir. I even had the opportunity to meet him several years ago at a conference I’ve regularly attended. Nevertheless, there is much more to his story than I knew before picking up this book. Perhaps you would like to know more about this particular scholar of the Bible and ancient Christianity.
The memoir’s subtitle reveals the central theme of the book. The now emeritus professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University, suggests that if one decides to write a memoir, one must decide why such a venture is worthwhile not only for the author but for those who end up reading the book. In making this point, he speaks to the audience. Johnson has indeed had a long and influential career as a teacher, speaker, scholar, and author, but he’s not a celebrity. Potential readers aren’t going to pick it up to discover juicy gossip. So, he writes about the life of a scholar. As such, he writes for potential scholars and for those who wonder what it is like to be a scholar. So, here we have the story of one who became a scholar and what this means to him.
Writing a review of a memoir is always tricky because you want to share enough information to entice readers to pick up the book without giving too much away. In other words, Eerdmans would prefer that you, my reader, don’t decide they’ve got enough information about Johnson’s life, so they don’t have to pick up a copy and read it for themselves. So, with that caveat, I can say this—like most memoirs, this one starts at the beginning of Johnson’s life. We learn about his origins as a young boy living in a small town in Wisconsin. Although his father died not long after he was born, his mother made sure that he and his older siblings had a home, an education, and a religious upbringing as a Roman Catholic. Unfortunately, his mother also died early in life. This led to a rather peripatetic life that ended up with him living and studying at a seminary at the age of thirteen. With that, he began his journey to becoming a monk, a priest, and a scholar. He loved God, the church, and reading. In fact, he read voraciously across a wide variety of genres. All of this fed his search for knowledge.
In discussing his calling and formation as a scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson distinguishes between being an intellectual and a scholar. The former is a person who is inquisitive, knowledgeable, and likely well-read. What makes a scholar different, as we will see, is that person’s commitment to a life of productive research that generally leads to the academic life, including teaching and writing. It’s the academic life that drives the conversation, as Johnson moves through seminary to ordination to his final decision to pursue scholarship. This led eventually him to attend Yale and earn a Ph.D. in New Testament. All the while, he was a monk and a priest who assumed that this would be his life—a scholar-monk. That was true until he met Joy, and everything changed. As we learn in The Mind in Another Place, his decision to marry Joy would have significant ramifications for his life (and hers). Of course, this decision meant leaving the priesthood. Because of Joy’s status as a divorced woman made life in the Catholic Church difficult. I’ll leave it to the reader to discover the full story, but it is both heartbreaking and inspirational at the same time. After he finished his Ph.D. he took up a non-tenure track position at Yale Divinity School, and then continued his journey to his final move to Emory with a decade-long tenure at Indiana University standing in between Yale and Emory. When he arrived at Emory it was to take up the position of Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins.
As we continue reading through the memoir, we learn more about the scholarly life, both its ups and downs. In his case, the pursuit of the scholarly life included the impact of his marriage. This is an important part of the story that readers will want to consider carefully. His situation might be unique and yet it points out challenges faced by families when it comes to the scholarly life. As we follow along with the story we learn about the nature of his writings, both the scholarly and the popular, but we also learn more about what it means to be a professor. Having spent some time in that realm, I found some similarities and many differences between his experiences and mine. What you will discover here is that there is a lot more to being a professor than simply teaching. You will learn about being on committees and performing other forms of academic service, some of which can be tedious! You will also learn about the relationships that emerge with students that take place outside the classroom. This is part of why he wrote the memoir. He wants the non-scholar to understand what it means to be a scholar. In this day when many question the value of higher education, including theological education (why do you need an M.Div. to be a pastor when all you really need is an ability to read the Bible?), Johnson offers a counter-response to the “anti-elitism” we’re seeing in our day. Though I’ve yet to find someone who is willing to let their barber perform heart surgery!
One part of the story that some folks will be familiar with is Johnson’s engagement with the Jesus Seminar. This engagement brought him much attention and even a bit of celebrity. However, even though he may have sold lots of books and gained notoriety, he confesses that this wasn’t a pleasant experience. While the Jesus Seminar folks garnered a lot of attention, Johnson has raised the important question as to whether this popularity is due to good scholarship. While there are differences of opinion on this question, Johnson reiterates that he’s still not a fan. For the most part, I agree with his assessment. But you have to read the memoir to discover why he responded as he did!
As the reader will discover, Luke Timothy Johnson is a complicated figure. In some ways, he’s rather conservative, especially in the way he reads the New Testament. Part of this stems from his insistence on the importance of engaging in serious exegesis. Part of it also has to do with his own religious convictions. He may have left the priesthood, but the priesthood stays with him. Nevertheless, while he writes for and with the Roman Catholic Church, he reminds the reader that he never sought the imprimatur of the church. Therefore, he remains free to do as he believes is right without seeking the approval of the church. In this regard, he has strongly supported the full inclusion of women in ministry and the full inclusion of LGBTQ folks.
As I’ve noted, Johnson begins the story with his journey to become a scholar. This journey is explored in the four chapters that make up Part One. Part Two begins after Johnson finishes his doctoral work and takes the first steps in becoming a scholar (Part Two). Finally, in Part Three, a section titled “A Scholars Virtues” Johnson focuses on two forms of virtue—intellectual and moral. Regarding intellectual virtues, Johnson includes curiosity, respect for evidence, mastery of the subject, wide and critical reading (he encourages scholars to write book reviews of works in one’s own field), imagination, and clarity and cogency. These mostly focus on cultivating the life of the mind. Then there are the moral virtues, by which he means the emotional and volitional virtues that include courage, ambition (it’s not what you think), discipline, persistence, detachment, contentment, multitasking (he doesn’t mean playing solitaire on your phone while you watch a TV show). In his view, both the intellectual and the moral virtues are required if one is committed to excellence as a scholar. This is what he sought, excellence, in his life as a scholar. It is according to these virtues that he judges himself. He might not fully reach the standards he set for himself, but this is his guiding principle.
Hopefully, I’ve revealed enough about Luke Timothy Johnson’s memoir—The Mind in Another Place: My Life as a Scholar—to entice you to pick up a copy and read it for yourself, without revealing too much. It’s possible that others might not find the book as interesting as I did, but if you are interested in what it means to be a biblical or theological scholar, then you will find this to be not only informative but intriguing. I read the memoir as one has pursued the scholarly life, though as Johnson notes in his memoir this is more difficult to accomplish outside the academy. I believe he’s correct. Being an independent scholar and a pastor, I’ve found pursuing scholarship to be challenging. What I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed reflecting on Johnson’s descriptions of the scholarly life, some of which I sought after but ultimately failed to attain. One other thing, if you’re concerned that this is written from an ivory tower for scholars, and therefore not accessible to the non-scholar, I can safely say that Johnson writes with clarity and energy such that he keeps the reader involved in the story. Part of that may have to do with the wide variety of reading he’s engaged in since childhood. So, take and read and discover what it means to be a scholar.
Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, he serves as Minister-at-Large in Troy. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including his latest books: Called to Bless: Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots (Cascade Books, 2021) and Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, 2nd Edition, (Energion Publications, 2021). His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be found at www.bobcornwall.com.