The Mashup Master

May 1, 2014
D. Andrew Teeter

"Bow down before the one you serve," growl the lyrics to Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like a Hole." The track is the epitome of 1990s industrial pop music—a jagged bit of full-on rage against the capitalist machine.

You wouldn't think that the tune's vocals would pair well with the instrumental track from Carly Rae Jepsen's 2012 bubble-gum hit, "Call Me Maybe." The two couldn't have more opposite messages. And yet the songs come together brilliantly in a recent "mashup" that's earned hundreds of thousands of internet downloads.

You know. Just like the Hebrew Bible.

"The mashup is exactly what the Book of Ruth is like," says Andrew Teeter, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, who brought the song into one of his classes last semester. "Ruth is a woman who loses everything. She goes off to a foreign land and her husband and children die and she decides that God's hand is against her. And yet it's a very happy, very positive story. The subtexts are very dark and clearly at play here, but they are reversed for the better."

Teeter's innovative classroom approach—which makes use of digital and other media to illuminate bible stories written thousands of years ago—has made him a favorite of HDS students, who last year honored him with the School's Outstanding Teacher Award. The youthful scholar says that he is grateful for the honor but is still "a novice on a faculty of masters."

"I'm trying to foster an environment in which the students can have a transformative intellectual encounter with the material," he explains. "That means doing anything I can, whether that's Keynote presentations, bringing in media, film, YouTube clips, songs, and especially chalkboard drawings. I try anything because each thing will connect with different students."

The eclectic teaching strategy is necessary, Teeter says, to help twenty-first century minds engage with ancient literature. He points out that even the most straightforward blockbuster film or television program requires of the viewer a high degree of media sophistication and familiarity with convention. Students process these cultural memes almost automatically, because they grew up with them. With the Hebrew Bible, though, a theme could stretch across dozens of chapters and require the reader to see patterns that extend through many different books.

"In order to understand a text in, say, German, you need to learn the language," Teeter explains. "To understand the Hebrew Bible, you need to learn the conventions—for instance, the constant repeated patterns, typologies, and composite arguments in this literature that involve juxtapositions and linkings of different texts. Such strategies are the means by which the texts of the Hebrew Bible have been designed to function as theological discourse."

Although Teeter frequently leverages modern media in his courses, he uses some of the most traditional and intellectually rigorous teaching methods as well. His exams, for instance, require rote memorization and ask students to know a variety of specific chapters and verses.

"It's all in order to create a picture in the students' minds so that they can come away from the course feeling that they know what this book is about," he says. "Everything that I do is about teaching students how to become competent readers of a deeply complex text."

Teeter's success in the classroom is an extension of his own passion for the stories of the Old Testament and of his research. His scholarship centers on the ways in which ancient scribes intentionally altered biblical texts in order to interpret, clarify, and explain the law.

"The study of the history of biblical interpretation is the study of Judaism—and Christianity—in its origin," he says. "The Hebrew Bible is born out of a continuous, productive, interpretive engagement. There's a constant effort to comprehend—and be comprehended by—texts that are regarded as divine. That process is continued seamlessly in the literary production of Second Temple Judaism, including early Christianity."

In the broadest sense, Teeter's work in the classroom and with ancient scriptures combats what he calls "the tyranny of the present." We live in a technological age, where progress is rapid and linear. As a result, we sometimes view the history of human thought in the same way; the literature and lessons of the past become, at best, quaint; at worst, primitive. But Teeter says that often what's most needed when wrestling with present-day questions is to remember and relearn something in our past that's been forgotten.

"A constant and exclusive focus on whatever is presently of interest is one of the quickest ways to ensure premature obsolescence," Teeter says. "Trends come and go. The way that one can immunize oneself is to have a long-term historical perspective, to study the past in a very self-interrogating, self-critical way in order to understand where we are in this much larger narrative."

—by Paul Massari