Monday, January 12, 2009

Memories of John Fenton

John Fenton, who died last week, was a major influence on my academic development and I would like to take a few lines to share some memories of a kind, scholarly and much underrated man. There are no major monographs by which he will be remembered (his most well known work is probably his very useful Penguin commentary on Matthew) but his influence as a scholar and a teacher on many was profound.

I can remember the first time I met him. It was October 1985, and it was my first week as a fresher in Oxford. I had been told to report to a certain Mrs. Fenton to join her New Testament Greek class. I found my way to Christ Church, met another clueless fresher there and she suggested that we knock on a large imposing door in Tom quad marked with "Fenton". Mrs Fenton was not there; we had come to the wrong place; but the door was answered by a tall gentleman in a cassock, with long white-hair, stooping a little, who seemed to be kind natured, and who turned out to be Canon Fenton. Most Oxford dons would have barked at our impertinence, but Canon Fenton offered some sympathy and suggested that we might find "Linda" (his wife, the Greek teacher) at a meeting in Regent's Park College intended for all Theology freshers. I never did meet Mrs. Fenton, and found my way into Mr Morgan-Wynne's class instead, but I would meet Canon Fenton again on many occasions, and that little bit of generosity to students nervous of Oxford's austerity made the place seem a bit less forbidding to those anxious newcomers.

I did not have to wait long to meet Canon Fenton properly (he was always "Canon Fenton" to his students). In that academic year, 1985-6, he was the "Catechist" at my college, Exeter. The Catechist would preach a handful of sermons in the chapel each year, and Canon Fenton's were always memorable. One in particular, on irony in Mark's Gospel, stayed with me. Its thesis sounded to me, in equal measure, to be astounding, preposterous and yet plausible. He began with a discussion of the apparent lack of humour in the New Testament, moving towards the dark comedy of Mark's Passion Narrative, concluding with the claim that the centurion's cry in Mark 15.39, "Truly, this is the son of God", should be read as sarcastic.* It was the first time I had heard anything like that and I can still hear the intonation in his voice, "Truly, this was the Son of God". I went to speak to him at the door of the college chapel after that sermon and made some ridiculous comments about a paperback I had seen but never read about the humour of Jesus. He listened and expressed interest and I felt the kind of thrill that some people would get from talking to a celebrity and finding that the celebrity was kind to them. I had read his Penguin commentary on Matthew from cover to cover while still at school, and talking to its real life author was so exciting that I phoned home to tell my mum the news.

In my second term in Oxford, Hilary 1986, Canon Fenton was my tutor for the Prelims paper on Mark's Gospel. I enjoyed this more than any other series of tutorials while I was in Oxford. For one thing, my earlier impressions of Canon Fenton were confirmed by the discovery that he was the most encouraging teacher imaginable. The Oxford tutorial system puts the undergraduate student, who has worked on a topic for a week (at best), in a room, alone, with a world expert. The student reads his or her essay and is then expected to defend it in the face of the tutor's cross-examination. I often used to find tutorials nerve-racking, but not with Canon Fenton. Several tutors would say nothing by way of encouragement after I had finished reading my essay, but Canon Fenton always began with something along the lines of , "What a super essay! Thank you very much." I can still feel the thrill of that first encouragement today. I came to look forward to it. I know that I was not alone; others told me of similar encouragement at the end of their readings, and how it boosted their confidence. After the initial encouragement, it would not be a cross-examination, and there would be no humiliation of the kind that characterized other teachers' methods. It was a discussion, and a most enjoyable discussion at that. I always had the impression that he was enjoying the tutorial as much as I was, and that he was keen to find out what kind of insights I might have to bring. Here was a tutor who seemed like he was genuinely interested in what one was saying.

His achievement in conveying that impression is all the more remarkable given the fact that I must have been just one student in the steady stream of undergraduates, one after another, in a given day. I would always arrive as one was leaving, and leave as the next one got to the top of the stairs. I noticed that he was always as kind to my fellow students as he was to me, though he would create the feeling that somehow we were in this battle together, burdened by knowledge of the truth in the face of a majority who simply didn't get it. I realized that Canon Fenton did not like evangelicals very much, and he showed little interest when I later attempted to engage him in conversation about the views of the new chaplain of Worcester College, who was the talk of the Theology faculty at that time.

I suppose that I was lucky to find myself on the same wavelength as Canon Fenton. I came to Oxford already under the influence of Michael Goulder, and so already a Q sceptic and already sympathetic to what I thought of as a radical approach to the New Testament. It seemed that my views aligned with Canon Fenton's on a week-by-week basis. I was delighted the week he said that it was time to study the parables, and the first thing he said was, "Yer've got to read Michael Goulder. I think he could be right." The last five minutes of the week's tutorial were always devoted to the following week's topic in this way. There would be no reading list, and only the most general essay title. "Write me an essay on the parables in Mark's Gospel. You'll have to read C. H. Dodd, but I think he's wrong. And a German chap called Jeremias. He's wrong too. But you might enjoy them."

Canon Fenton had a humble way of implying that if you agreed with him it was because you were clever, and you were in the club together, united against all these others who didn't really understand the issues properly. I remember the door closing once at the beginning of my tutorial just as the previous student was going down the stairs. Canon Fenton looked at me conspiratorially and said, "Nice chap that, but thick as two short planks." The only time I saw him irritated was on a similar occasion, when a rather over-confident, pushy, posh lad pressed Canon Fenton as he was leaving for a bit more critical feedback on his essay; Canon Fenton curtly mentioned a factual error in the essay that the student might wish to correct, and said no more. His teaching methods were, I suppose, inductive. They were about the mutual exchange of ideas and discussion about the primary text; they were not about revising drafts of papers.

I had a second full term of Canon Fenton in my second year. This was a wonderful bonus. My primary tutor at Exeter liked me to get exposure to as many different teachers as possible, and he had tried to get me another teacher for the course called "New Testament Theology". But when that fell through, I heard the happy news that I would be going back to Canon Fenton. In those days, "New Testament Theology" meant Paul and John (quite Bultmannian), and Canon Fenton was the ideal teacher -- he insisted on careful reading of the primary texts above everything else. My first essay was simply, "How does John differ from the Synoptics?" He told me to do two things: to read John's Gospel "lots of times", comparing it to the Synoptics, and to read Käsemann. I confess that I dug out Canon Fenton's own "New Clarendon" commentary on John, a book now sadly forgotten, and mined it for insights I might not have got on my own, and thus hoped to be hitting all the right notes in my paper. But the discussion focused entirely on Christology, and on Käsemann's Testament of Jesus with its characterization of John's "naïvely docetic" Jesus, which came out after Canon Fenton had finished writing his New Clarendon.

Here, as always, Canon Fenton had an instinct for where the debate on a given issue was located; he could always point you to the absolutely key piece or pieces of secondary literature. He never recommended survey pieces or introductory level books. In fact, he seldom recommended an article. It would always be a key book or two. When we got to the epistle to the Hebrews, he listed a few books, adding each time, "But they're wrong", concluding that the only person to get Hebrews right is Kümmel. "The problem is that the Germans aren't very interested in Hebrews because they can't find justification by faith in it."

Canon Fenton was always revising his opinions and you had the impression of someone for whom the learning experience was always ongoing. Sometimes he would pull out a new book, often one that he had been sent for review by JTS or Theology. I remember his exasperation with a book by Gerd Theissen on the miracles, which he lent me, saying with enjoyably faux humility, "Didn't understand a word of it. Hope you can explain it to me." At other times, a new book would thrill him and dominate his thinking. The most recent example of this that I know of was Douglas Geyer, Fear, Anomaly and Uncertainty in the Gospel of Mark, published in 2002. I had given a paper in Oxford on the Passion Narrative, a critique of John Dominic Crossan that I called "Prophecy Historicized or History Scripturalized?", and my friend Barbara, another Fenton student, had arranged a lunch beforehand, and had brought Canon Fenton over. It was wonderful to see him again after some years. He was now a bit deaf, but was able to hear my paper and to comment on it, pressing on me the importance of reading Geyer, with his "anomlous frightful" in Mark. I did so, and it found its way into a subsequent article I had published on the Passion in Mark.

I could go on and on with more memories, but I will share just a couple more. He used to say that of all the evangelists, Luke was the one who was most likely to invite you to dinner; and of all the evangelists, his would be the invitation you would most want to accept. In fact, the comment turns up in one of his reviews, though I forget which one. Another comment I loved related to the importance of reading entire texts in large dollops, rather than chopping them up and reading them piecemeal. "The problem is that since we have joined the Common Market, we have all started drinking wine, and we have got used to sipping. But we used to drink beer. Pints of beer. Large amounts. That's how we should read the texts, in large quantities."

Writing these reflections on Canon Fenton makes me realize just how major an influence he has been on my academic development. There must be many others like me -- I was just one undergraduate student who climbed those stairs at Christ Church on several occasions to talk about the New Testament with a man who was fascinated by what he was teaching. It was like a fireside chat, but of the most intellectually stimulating kind. I think more than anything, though, I am grateful to Canon Fenton for his encouragement. He always thanked students for their essays, and expressed enthusiasm for what they wrote. Many teachers could learn a lot from that. I am going to miss him.
* Jeff Peterson reminds me that Fenton attributed this insight to Austin Farrer, though it cannot be found in any of Farrer's writings, and must be down to oral tradition. It appears also in Fenton's Finding the Way through Mark (London & New York: Continuum, 1995), 111, where he notes that "There is also the possibility that 'this man' should be translated 'this fellow', disparagingly, as in Acts 6.13".


Bob MacDonald said...

Thank you for this good word. It was a pleasure to read it.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Mark, thank you for sharing these memories. This was an utter joy to read and was both touching and very funny. With you I do hope that teachers of every kind everywhere take seriously examples like Canon Fenton.

Gail Dawson said...

Thank you for this rich and detailed post of your teacher and mentor. I felt as though I myself had had the opportunity to meet this great teacher and biblical scholar. I especially appreciate your describing for us, and reflecting on, the kinds of techniques that Canon Fenton used in his teaching: these are very helpful. You've posted about the process of teaching biblical studies from time to time, and I hope you will continue to write about it.

Julia said...

I also climbed those stairs (Jesus 1982-85). Currently teaching Mk.15:39. A very big influence. Weren't we lucky?