Season 3 - Episode 305
Biblical scholar Stephen Reid’s research is an example of the ways modern technology can give voice to individuals who might otherwise go unheard. Dr. Reid, Professor of Christian Scriptures in Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, recently utilized text mining to learn how African-Americans in the 1700s and 1800s interpreted the book of Deuteronomy. Inside University Libraries, Baylor Digital Scholarship offers powerful technologies to enhance research in the digital humanities. Learn more about how Reid’s experience accelerated his research and provided deep insight into the ways African-Americans shared the Bible on the path to emancipation.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and our guest today is Dr. Stephen Reid. Dr. Reid serves as professor of Christian Scriptures in Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, an author and scholar, reads research interests, focuses on African-American biblical hermeneutics, multicultural hermeneutics, and the book of Daniel and the Psalms. Last summer Reid served as a Fundamentals of Data Research Fellow in conjunction with Baylor University Libraries is where he utilized text mining to enhance research into freedom narratives, advancing our ability to understand African-American perspectives on Deuteronomy in the 1700s and 1800s for the Oxford Handbook on Deuteronomy. Dr. Reid is a published author and ordained minister in the church of the brethren and he's with us today here on Baylor connections. We're going to really going to really break down what all that means, but a Dr. Reid, thanks so much for joining us. It's great to have you here today.
Stephen Reid:Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.
Derek Smith:I know when we visited for a Baylor Magazine article that people can find online at baylor.edu/magazine about data research. When we talk about George W. Truett theological seminary, we're not necessarily thinking about data and numbers and all that, but I'm excited to talk to you today about how you're disciplined with the Bible, with these ancient texts, how it fits with when we talk about modern data sciences now.
Stephen Reid:Well, one of the things that really surprises me is that we're having this conversation. A little more than a year ago, I would not have anticipated that we'd be having a conversation about text data mining. Most of the time I spend reading Hebrew text and analyzing Hebrew poetry and those sorts of things, and so this is a substantial change for me. Looking at the sort of reception history of the Bible.
Derek Smith:Well, Dr. Reid, you know, you mentioned that this wasn't something that you would have thought you'd be sitting here talking about at the beginning of the show, but we've learned more about the digital humanities where technology meets the study of, what they talk about in college of arts and sciences, what it means to be human. What are the digital humanities to you and is that a topic you'd heard people talking about in your discipline over recent times?
Stephen Reid:The topic of digital humanities I first heard of when I was at the Baylor Library, because Baylor was talking about this much before I heard it in Biblical Studies. And digital humanities is just asking the question how we can use these large data sets to help us understand what it means to be human. And so in my project, we've used the data sets of Deuteronomy. We could use other data sets such as Psalms. And in the last 10 years in the society of biblical literature, a professional society of biblical scholars of about 8,500 members, there is a section on digital humanities and biblical studies because there is an awareness that we can use this digital approach and we can use it in analysis of text, we can use it in analysis of archeology, we can use it in reconstruction of life in antiquity. And so it's a, it's a pretty big thing in the emerging world of biblical studies.
Derek Smith:Well, we're going to really break down how those two things intersect, how the technology is able to enhance what you do because that need for a biblical scholar like yourself to really dive into the text is in no way replaced, but what it does is it seems like it's able to enhance your ability to hone in on a what's really out there among hundreds and even thousands of documents that are available.
Stephen Reid:That's right. One of the things this does is it takes that mountain of data and helps you figure out where you have the best likelihood of finding the transformative data that you're looking for.
Derek Smith:We're going to really dive into that in just a moment here, but I want to ask you Dr. Reid, I gave a description at the top of the program of what you do, but what does your approach to studies of scripture in your job at Truett Theological Seminary look like and how can we define hermeneutics and apply it to your work?
Stephen Reid:Hermeneutics is an interesting word because it comes from Hermes, a Greek god of interpretation, but Hermes was an interesting sort of Greek God. He was a trickster. And hermeneutics, the laws of interpretation or the rules of interpretation are interesting because of the way they give you all sorts of surprises and hermeneutics is just a fancy way of saying the rules of reading. If someone comes up to a stop sign and instead of stopping, they accelerate, then they've read the sign improperly. And in other words, they've had the wrong hermeneutics with that set of signs. And so hermeneutics just says, these are the rules of how we read and good readers in our community read the text in these ways.
Derek Smith:What are a few, just kind of off the top of the head, what are a few of those rules or guideposts that help people read the scriptures, read the Bible more? I don't know if appropriately is the right word, more correctly.
Stephen Reid:One of those is that the words of the text mean in the 21st century, largely the same things that they meant in the ancient periods. So wheat is wheat and wheat has not transformed so that now that wheat is transformers or wheat or cell phones. That there is that continuity of language is one of the things. Second, that human beings in antiquity and human beings in the 21st century are still human beings and there are certain behaviors that you can take for granted. Those are some of the rules. In an earlier period in Christian history, they would talk about a more allegorical, where a bit of wheat can stand for something else in more contemporary biblical studies we say wheat is wheat and so those are some of the rules that we teach at George W. Truett in terms of biblical hermeneutics.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Stephen Reid, Professor of Christian Scriptures at Truett Seminary, and another area of interest for you is studying African American biblical hermeneutics and multicultural hermeneutics. What are some of the topics within that umbrella that most interests you? That you would study even if you didn't have to?
Stephen Reid:One of the things that I've realized teaching scripture for over a quarter of century now is that people read the text based on their life experience. For instance, one of the things that's that's been fascinating to me is when we talk about lamb or meat in antiquity, our students tend to think of HEB and grocery stores. And so you really have to help them understand that the writers of the text, we're in a sort of pre-grocery store world and by so doing it helps him recognize that people right out of their own life experience and if you want to enter into their literature, you have to be able to understand their life experience. We do that through language. We also do that through the study of history.
Derek Smith:When we think about the African American experience through the years from the days of slavery through Jim Crow, through the civil rights era, how much do writings about the Bible, do commentaries on the Bible that are still available by people of that era, how much can that tell us just about the ways that they were processing the world around them or the changes taking place around them?
Stephen Reid:One of the things that I found fascinating in doing this text data mining project is that I thought I knew what were the important texts in Deuteronomy., And they really, those earlier writers focused on Deuteronomy six, "You shall love the Lord your God." And they focus on that much more than I would've anticipated. I would have thought that they would have looked at other texts that talk about slavery rules or other texts that talk about various liberation themes, but that seemed to be a key theme. One of the things I realized in this process is one of the passages I thought was central, was central because of an article I read as a young seminarian. Well, the people of the 17 and 1800s, Africans of that era, were not reading seminary articles, were not reading articles by German theologians, and so they would have a different way of coming at those texts. And so they saw important text, but they were not important because they had read the scholarship. They were important because they kept resonating with the life experience. Part of what happens with good interpretation of text is it helps a people understand what God is doing in their lives. And so what Deuteronomy six did for the Africans and African Americans in the 17 and 1800s was talk about God who unifies and God who is the giver of all life. And those are the themes that really dominated in that period. And another thing that might surprise your listeners is the importance of the King James Bible for Africans who were enslaved. The Bible they learned was the King James Bible. This is one of the things I really have to explain to my students because for many of our students, they know a world where there are multiple Bible translations, but in the 17 and 1800s there were not multiple English translations. There was one translation. And even today in the African American community, the King James Version is the premiere translation, and so that's part of what built that sort of language group and language world of African Americans trying to understand what was happening to them in the 17 and 1800s.
Derek Smith:Talking with Dr. Stephen Reid. And so Dr. Reid, you recently, kind of the Genesis of what we're talking about right now, came because you were asked to write an essay for the Oxford Handbook on Deuteronomy and specifically African American perspectives on Deuteronomy. As you said at the top of show, you didn't necessarily imagine that that would lead you to working with data mining, text mining, high powered computers, and yet here we are. So can you tell us a little bit about your approach when they asked you to do that essay and how it led you to the State of Fellows Program between the Joint Program, between College of Arts and Sciences and Baylor University Libraries?
Stephen Reid:Well, when they first asked me to write the article, I really thought they were asking me to write about African-American contemporary biblical scholars and what they said about it. And I was a little hesitant to do that, partly because African Americans have been reading the Bible or encountering the Bible since slavery. And so I wanted somehow to capture that information. And I was a little overwhelmed because I remember going to a library and seeing the so-called slave narratives and it was a long shelf of big books. And I thought, I'm a Bible guy. I do not want to have to read through all of those books.
Stephen Reid:Hundreds of books in order to find the paragraph here and paragraph there that are relevant for my work. So I shared this with Bill Hare, the theological librarian, and he said, Oh yes, I have a solution. I want to introduce you to Joshua Ben, the Digital Scholarship Librarian at the library. And I talked to them and I said, here's what I want to do, I want to find out where in these stories and in these sermons, the book of Deuteronomy is quoted and interpreted. And I thought they were going to say, "Oh, well we really can't do that." But they got excited.
Derek Smith:Josh is a can do guy.
Stephen Reid:Josh is a can do guy. And so he said, "Oh yeah, we can do that." And lo and behold, he wrote some Python scripts, Python being a computer language. You know, as a biblical scholar, I do a lot of languages but none of them computer languages. And was able to find places where we have quotations of the biblical passages. And then it was just a matter of going through and seeing how they were using it and where they occurred and when they were authentic.
Derek Smith:And that's an interesting look as we have more tools available and as Baylor moves into eliminate, it gives you tools, but as it filters out information you need, it's like a marriage between technology and your discipline, right?
Derek Smith:You're able to go through there and not have to dig through 500 but what about 60 of them?
Stephen Reid:About 60 of them.
Derek Smith:So 60. So a lot more manageable.
Stephen Reid:Well, this is one of the places where being at a Christian research university really makes a difference. I've spent most of my career at small seminaries with small library staff, and you just don't have somebody like Josh who can write the Python code. You don't have the computer access. Because once he wrote the code, then he had to run it through a pretty high performance computer to get the feedback that we needed. And so without the library and the computing facilities that we have here at Baylor, this project never would have been able to be done.
Derek Smith:And the Freedom Narratives had been digitized by University of North Carolina?
Stephen Reid:By the University of North Carolina. One of the things that is fascinating to me is the number of places that have digitized freedom Narratives. The narratives of how people moved from slavery to freedom in the 17 and 1800s and since those are digitized, we can have access to them without having to fly to North Carolina. One of the things I learned in the digital scholarship seminar this summer was about the Hathi Trust, which has really facsimiles of a number of these documents. And so once Josh had sort of found the document, I could search through it, then I would be able to in fact look at it sort of page by page in the material in the Hathi Trust. And one of the exciting things is in the 17 and 1800s they really liked to have pictures of the writers.
Derek Smith:That's cool.
Stephen Reid:And so you can see the person and you can see how this sort of voice comes through that person.
Derek Smith:Well, so the the freedom Narrative has been digitized and you can apply that to any other old texts that are available. If someone takes the time to digitize them, they're available. You use data mining to find what's relevant. And what's interesting to me is you're able to give voice to people whose contributions, people who took the time to write down their understandings, their world, it might otherwise just be a book on a shelf. Right? But what it seems like it's giving them, the digitization process is giving them a voice still today.
Stephen Reid:It does give a voice to this group. And one of the things to remember is that when we think of biblical studies, it's easy to think of people who have PhDs as the interpreters, but most interpreters of biblical texts are not PhD folks. And if we really pay attention in the 17-1800s people were reading the Bible and interpreting. Almost none of that got into commentaries that you now go and pick up. But through this process we can hear all sorts of voices, African-American voices, the voices of women. One of the people that I bumped into in this process was Eleanor Eldridge, an African-American entrepreneur whose passage was a Deuteronomy 30 that talked about be of good courage, which she used almost as a motto in her autobiography. And so we really do get to find people that otherwise we would never recognize.
Derek Smith:As this project took you inside their world in the 17 and 1800s you mentioned some verses that were prominent, weren't ones you'd expect. What were the findings that were most interesting to you that maybe even led to more questions you'd like to explore?
Stephen Reid:Well, one of the things that was interesting was the way many of the writers would talk about the integrity of God and how the integrity of God called out of each person a whole hearted integrity, and then would make the move that the integrity of God meant the integrity of humans and the integrity of humans meant the affirmation of all humans. And so by the time they got done, Deuteronomy six was an anti-slavery passage and would be used as a rationale for why the United States would need to give up slavery.
Derek Smith:What, as you read that, does that lead to further questions that you want to explore or what does that contribution as you think about putting that out there for other scholars to read, what do you see that leading towards?
Stephen Reid:Well, Josh and I read a paper on our Adventures in Digital Humanities and the paper has now been accepted and will be published later this year.
Derek Smith:Oh great.
Stephen Reid:And one of the people who listened to the paper came up to me and said, "Well, I'm doing a Psalms commentary on reception history and the history of interpretation. I wonder what sort of resources I would have to look at African American but also to look at women and maybe look at Spanish sources?" And so with text data mining we can really open up these other venues.
Derek Smith:Heading into the final couple of moments. I do want to ask you, we talk about that fellows program that led off to what we've been talking about. I know you're in there with professors from English, from history, from all different aspects of the humanities. What's that environment like being with scholars whose worlds haven't always intersected with technology in this way and realizing those possibilities together?
Stephen Reid:One of the advantages this summer was just to find out how many ways our research was similar and how diverse our populations were. We had someone doing gospel choirs and so to be looking at African American interpretation and to listen to what she was finding out about gospel choirs in Europe, it was just sort of fascinating. To hear how depictions of geography during the British empire made us think about how are spatial things happening in biblical interpretation? And so it was a great opportunity to get sort of beyond the silos of departments and just sort of hear what are core questions that are being asked around the university. This is one of the resources, and I don't want to make a commercial for the library, but this is one of the things the library does so well. So that I could hear from folks in music, from folks in English, and learn more about what they're doing that have that have a positive impact on how I think about the work in Hebrew and biblical studies.
Derek Smith:Well they deserve the advertisement. Obviously checking out books a big part of what they do, but there's so much more that they do and connecting that Baylor faculty with research opportunities. Well, Dr. Stephen Reid, I wish we had more time, but thank you so much for your time. It's been great to visit with you and hear more about this project.
Stephen Reid:Well, thank you for the opportunity.
Derek Smith:And I also tell people, it's funny. We're sitting here talking about this scholarly work, but I see you sometimes at the Baylor basketball games. I see you get fired up in there.
Stephen Reid:That's right.
Derek Smith:There's another the other side of that, too.
Stephen Reid:Sic them Lady Bears.
Derek Smith:Sic them Lady Bears. That's right. Dr. Stephen Reid, Professor of Christian Scriptures at Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Our guest today on Baylor Connections.
Derek Smith:I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online. baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.