Book Review: Ben Witherington III, Is There a Doctor in the House?

Witherington III, Ben.  Is There a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Biblical Scholar. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011.  156 p. $18.99, Kindle edition $9.99.

This little book is in many ways entertaining and challenging. Witherington has written eleven short chapters on the topic of becoming a professional scholar. He mixes personal recollections of his own journey along with good advice and warnings to the person just starting their education.  I would say this is a great book to give to someone going off to Seminary or Grad school, although it is certainly valuable for anyone who has experienced the academic world.

To a large extent, this is Zondervan’s answer to Crossway’s The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor by John Piper and D. A. Carson (see my review here).  Piper and Carson encourage the Pastor to aspire to scholarship and the scholar to retain a pastoral spirit.  Witherington echoes many of these same themes, although his focus is solely on the Academic.  Scattered throughout the book a bits of advice encouraging the scholar to actively tend to spiritual things first.

I must confess that some of the chapters would not be my choice for a book which intends to prepare younger “scholars in training.”  The chapters on Theology and Hermeneutics, for example, seem to be a summary of a broad topic, not necessarily advice on developing a theological mind.  Witherington’s chapters on developing one’s skills as a writer and a teacher are excellent, with many useful bits of advice to avoid some of the common academic pitfalls.

One of the best aspects of this book is the recommended reading section.  There are many books listed in this section which are “required reading” for anyone who wants to pursue scholarship, although it seems to me that if one specializes then the list ought to grow for that specialty.   I especially like his advice to those who read books – mark them, take notes, underline, star, write in the margins, but most of all read books.  To do academic research, Witherington says, Kindle will just not do.  I shouted a hearty “Amen” when I read that, underlined it and starred it in the margin.  While I am a huge fan of electronic resources (Logos, iPad, Kindle, etc), there is no substitute for a real book, held in your hands.  (Ideally, with a cup of strong coffee, but that is another issue altogether.  Witherington never really addresses the need for good coffee to get through a graduate program, a serious omission to my way of thinking.)

As I wind up my own PhD studies (just the defense is left!), I can certainly appreciate most of what Witherington says in this book.  In fact, I wish I had read something like this ten or fifteen years ago, it would have saved me some trouble.  I did have The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career: A Portable Mentor for Scholars from Graduate School through Tenure, by John Goldsmith.  Witherington’s book is lightweight compared to The Chicago Guide, but it is decidedly Christian.  For the most part his advice is common sense, but someone entering a Master’s program would do well to listen from a “grizzled veteran” and learn a few tricks of the Academic trade.

Evangelicals especially need to take notice of this book and the model which Witherington provides.  He does scholarship on an international level and his work is respected outside the evangelical world. But he has remained committed to his confessional roots.  There is a desperate need for well-educated evangelical scholars, this book ought to be an encouragement to those beginning that journey.