Bill Long 10/4/06
Five Areas...and Then Some
Life stays the same, and then life changes. For me my professional changes have been rather more frequent than most others, but it has resulted in a lot of interesting experiences along the way. Over the past 24+ years I have been paid to do or be the following: (1) professor of religion and humanities at an elite college; (2) editorial writer for a major American daily; (3) pastor of a large urban congregation; (4) professor of history and government at a non-elite college; (5) law student (I guess I was "paid" through scholarships and working on Law Review); (6) litigation attorney at a prominent regional law firm; (7) law professor at my law alma mater. It looks as if my professional life will change again at the end of 2006, and so that means I have to make some decisions. The purpose of this and the next essay is to describe my current intellectual interests and the kind of issues that "move" me now. This is in addition to my "usual" stuff of commenting on current events or movies and writing on words in my seemingly never-ending quest to win the National Senior Spelling Bee.
Interests...in No Particular Order....1. The Book of Job
I have written two books on this biblical book, in 1995 and 2004. They are different kinds of books, with the latter reflecting the intervening years of legal training and practice I had undertaken. I thought that when I wrote my second book on Job and finished promoting it (early 2006), I would put it "on the shelf" and move onto other things. But it continues to allure or even haunt me at times. The particular issue that I would like to explore is the way that law and legal categories function for Job in the midst of this multi-layered drama. Law and legal catgories are woven deeply into the fabric of Job. It is the means through which Job gathers his intellectual and psychic energies to "take on" God. By continuing to probe the larger questions which the Book of Job presents, such as the issues of "undeserved" suffering, "stages" of grief, relationships to friends when grief has struck, I am able to identify and understand more fully the role that law plays in Job. It gives him hope; it takes away hope. It provides a language for him; it limits Job by its language. I don't know what form my interest in Job and law will take, but I know that the Book of Job is not finished with me yet.
In that connection, I also have "discovered" another religion or "sacred text"-type of project that has legal implications. While teaching Jurisprudence this Fall, I introduced my students to rabbinic modes of thinking through a week on texts from the Babylonian Talmud. We had rip-roaringly interesting discussions and I realized on that occasion how the rabbis are useful for legal education. They help you think precisely because they are not thinking about any real-life or practical issue. They are trying to be faithful to the texts they have inherited but, at the same time, they want to interpret them in a different world from that in which they were written. With no "money" at stake, no big "clients" to offend or kowtow to, the rabbis are able to listen deeply to text and then spin out various interpretations of it. I would love to start or be part of a Talmud study group. Hebrew knowledge wouldn't be essential in order to join, but I think it would be fascinating to get Christians and Jews (and nonaffiliated) together to study the jurisprudential texts of the Babylonian Talmud.
2. Legal History
The earliest I recall someone pointing out my historical bent to me was in high school. I was sitting around with a friend who was considered one of the "intellectuals" of the high school, and he looked at me and said, "Bill, you ought to become an historian." He emphasized the word "an," because I think he has just read that you could use the word before the consonant "h," as a sort of reverse rule for dropping the "an" before some words beginning with vowels, such as "unicorn" (i.e., we say "a unicorn" rather than "an unicorn"). In any case, the advice took, though it was several years before I realized how true the advice was. I finally admitted to myself that my mind is geared to mastering and recalling a combination of dates, facts and figures as well as theoretical approaches to try to link these dates, facts and figures into an accessible explanatory framework. In other words, I can make the past "live" and especially for ordinary, but intelligent, adults who want to understand "where things came from."
Since I entered the study of law in 1996 I discovered that legal history is a largely unexplored field. It is not as if we don't have legal historians around, but I find that my approach to legal history, while informed by their methods, is considerably different from theirs. I want to understand the evolution of legal concepts in the context of the societies in which they developed. I would like to show the ways that law has changed over time. For example, rather than just writing a book (or teaching legal history) by spending week on Bracton, a week on Glanville, a week or two on Coke, etc. I would tend to take a particular doctrine or statute from the past, study it closely, try to "blow it up" in the context of the time it emerged, ask about the nature of life that produced such a statute and then see how the statute becomes incorporated into the way of life of a people. Two examples of studies I have done (or at least started) are on my web site. One of them--the clash between the commmon law concept of champerty and the growing interest in the American frontier in contingent fee arrangements in the 1830s--is here. Oh, a related one just came to mind, which led to two essays that were most entertaining to me. I ran across Herman Melville's delightful short story on the "Lightning Rod Salesman," read it, laughed about it, and then found cases, criminal cases no less, on prosection of lightning rod salesmen in the Plains states in the late 19th century. Here are those essays.
A second kind of historical project I have done relates to essays on the historical background of the 14th Amendment. I took about a month to research that topic, and though I have teased at least 20 essays out of it, by reading some of the original debates, I have not really "put it all together." Here are those essays. These are, as their name suggests, only "essays" or "attempts." They show how legal history can be defined in fresh and, I think, very attractive ways in 2006 and beyond.
This is enough for one essay. The next will discuss interests 3-5 (and more).
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long