RSC: Dr. Ball, we know that you have an extensive background teaching seminary and institute. How is teaching Old Testament at BYU different than teaching for CES?
Dean Ball: I found my teaching seminary and institute very satisfying I really enjoyed it. And I like teaching here as well. Because the Old Testament is an elective course, the students who come to it are there because they want to be there. So they come in highly motivated. Brigham Young University students are exceptionally bright, exceptionally verbal, anxious to learn, and want to get their money’s worth. The saying is “When the students come into our classes, they’re hungry. And if they don’t feed them, they’ll eat you.” The Old Testament is probably the least read of all of our standard works. I think people feel intimidated by it because of its size and because, in some ways, it’s a different genre than many of the other books of scripture we have. It does have the prophets section, but it also includes historical books and a section of wisdom literature—things that were not necessarily written by prophets but written by historians or by poets and so it has a little bit different feel to it. I think that makes it more challenging.
RSC: You mentioned how some of the books were written by poets and historians rather than prophets. What is the value of these books?
Dean Ball: I think that those who put together the Old Testament canon were inspired. I think that Heavenly Father cared deeply about which books were canonized and I think they are all there for a purpose. Take the Song of Solomon for example: it is a poem a man writes to a woman that he is courting. But it can viewed as a metaphor, one that is also used elsewhere in the scriptures, for the type of love that the Lord feels for his covenant people. The metaphor as the Lord as the bridegroom and the covenant people as the bride or as the husband and his people as his wife is a powerful one. The love and the trust and the devotion that exists between God and his children ought to be like that which exists between a husband and a wife. And so, sure it’s a literary work—a piece of poetry—but we can liken it unto ourselves like Nephi admonished us to do with the scriptures. Or consider the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is really an exploratory essay, which I believe was actually written by Solomon. After he had fallen out of good standing with God he is reflecting back on what the whole purpose of life is. He explores that questions from many different angles, and presents several different theses as he goes through the whole question. Some of his statements are actually contradictory within the text itself but in the end he gets to the right place. The most important thing is to serve God and make the most of it. But I wouldn’t call it a terribly inspired work—it is really the musing of a man who is trying to figure out what he has done with his life--what really was important--what he wishes he would have done differently.
RSC: How do you feel teaching the Old Testament at Brigham Young is different than teaching it at another university?
Dean Ball: Here we teach the content but we also teach the text from a position of faith. That’s important. We believe that the text was preserved for our use and that God intended for us to study and to understand it, to learn from it and to apply principles and truths in our lives—to come to know him through the text. So it is not just purely literature or a literary work in our classes. But we do teach in some ways similar to other institutions as well. We discuss issues such as higher criticism or textual criticism, documentary hypothesis, linguistic issues, historical issues and all that, but we get to add the dimension of what it means for us in our lives, what God wants us to learn from it.
RSC: How does BYU Old Testament scholarship compare with other scholarship? Do we contribute to the scholarly world or do we mainly focus on LDS research?
Dean Ball: BYU absolutely contributes to the discipline of Old Testament studies. We have faculty members who are very, very involved in advancing the frontiers of Old Testament studies. We have stars in the discipline. But we also teach the text from a position of faith which distinguishes us from some others in the discipline; that’s not unique to Latter-day Saints. We have colleagues—Christian colleagues and Jewish scholars as well—who also have faith in the text as well. We have a well trained faculty and when we go to professionals meetings such as the Society of Biblical Literature conferences our papers are presented, they are well received, and they are well reviewed.
RSC: What are some of your projects that you have completed recently and that you are currently working on?
Dean Ball: I just recently completed rewriting the Old Testament Independent Study course. It is off the press and now in use. I also just last week completed a manuscript on Isaiah. It is an application text. We have some very good Latter-day Saint commentaries on Isaiah by several different LDS scholars but this one focuses on following Nephi’s admonition to liken the scriptures to ourselves—particularly Isaiah. It only has two or three pages on each chapter. It begins with a brief overview of the chapter as a whole and then it takes one aspect of the chapter and provides a latter-day application. There is one chapter in the book for each of the sixty-six chapters of Isaiah. It is a small volume intended for those who want get a quick handle on Isaiah. One of my students, Nathan Winn, has co-authored it with me. It is not a heavily academic work, but more devotional in nature.
RSC: What advice would you give those who look to follow your example in a career whether it is in CES or as a professor?
Dean Ball: First they have to make sure they’re good teachers. This is a discipline that deserves the very best teachers we can find. If one contemplating becoming a religious educator is a great teacher then he or she will have a chance, but if not they probably won’t be completive for a spot in the Church Educational System. So if you want a career in religious education you have to develop yourself into an excellent teacher. This entails more than just developing your teaching skills. You also need to develop the ability to teach by the Spirit. Of course you also must keep yourself worthy so as to live an exemplary life for your students. If you want to teach religion at BYU you also have to establish yourself as a scholar—you have to have a passion for research, writing and publishing. These things are very critical—we expect our faculty here at BYU to be on the frontiers of the discipline researching and writing.
RSC: How do you balance your scholarly studies with your faith?
Dean Ball: To me they go hand in hand. My PhD. is in Archeobotany and my science informs my faith and my faith informs my science. The more I study the more the two disciplines inform and enhance one another. I find no more challenges to my faith coming from science than I do from my science coming from my faith. Moreover, within science there are many challenges and issues that we cannot reconcile. Likewise within our faith there are issues that we may struggle to reconcile or understand. I I think that there are no more conflicts between science and religion than there are within each discipline. There are always issues and question that keep us searching and learning.
RSC: What do you view as your main purpose as the Dean of Religious Education?
Dean Ball: The mission of BYU is to assist individuals in their efforts to come unto Christ. In religious education we help do that by teaching the gospel. The Aims of the BYU education are to provide an education that is spiritually enlarging, intellectually enlightening, character building, and engendering lifelong service and learning. I think we do that well in religious education. We do that through our teaching in the classroom, through our research and writing, and through our outreach to the community. It is important that we do these things well. My role as Dean is to see that our faculty have the resources, training and support they need to be as successful as possible in this endeavor.
RSC: Any last comments?
Dean Ball: We need to study the Old Testament. It is the beginning of all scripture. It is the foundation. We need to study it and we need to learn from it, gather the lessons and messages and doctrines found in the text and apply them in our lives.