On Labels and Scholarship: Secularism and Faith in L’Accademia

Up until a little over a year ago, I would have called myself an atheist, a secularist; I have no doubts that many scholars might identify with labels like those or others similarly linked to a lack of faith.  But I have wised up a bit since those days.  On the one hand, I don’t think I can really call myself an atheist as I don’t think I identify with the label.  I can’t idealize Dawkins and, even though I am an existentialist, I cannot push aside burning questions about the value of the current trends of atheism.  Am I a humanist?  Yes.  Am I a Christian?  No.  But an atheist as far as the existence of a sort of supreme being?  I am not that either.  Certainly, even when I did take on the label, I was not really identifying with something I was, but something I believed I was not.  Consequently, I think a lot of us do that; we identify with what we aren’t as a way to define what we are and, as a result, we caricaturize and label.  We create whole socio-cultural groups, opinions, delusions, about others that simply don’t exist.  Watch Fox News or MSNBC, tune into any political debate on CSPAN, sit in at a town hall meeting for an hour and you’ll immediately catch on to my reasoning.   That such a thing occurs in politics is expected.  But that it also exists in scholarship is something that both shocks and disappoints me.

This post deals with this fiction we all create, not just within the community of l’Accademia but with the general public as well.  We fabricate these perspectives–whether about BAR and Shanks, about Jesus, about Christians, about which side we aren’t on and which side we idealize–and then we distribute these fabrications to others as part of a means to eliminate, albeit unintentionally, the very purpose of scholarship: the purpose to continually challenge and question and, more importantly, to educate and disseminate information about the past for the preservation of the future.  Instead of preserving the memories of the past, we are dissolving them in the bitterness of the labels we use.  We are the Wormsley Commom Gang from Graham Greene’s The Destructors rather than being the Solomon or Hiram of 1 Kings.

There has been a lot of discussion lately in the biblioblog-o-sphere about the battle between secularism and the seminary over Biblical Studies.  Tim Bulkeley has recently posted up an article on B&I on the subject, of which has garnered as much attention as the article is enjoyable.  He writes (read the whole article, it is quite good):

“The Bible’s most vociferous cultured despisers, the so-called neo-atheists, argue that (read literally as some sort of instruction manual) the Bible supports all sorts of barbarity…. That’s not strange, the challenge they pose is a reasonable and necessary one. What is strange is that their reading of Scripture is one that Jewish and Christian tradition across the millennia has NOT practiced. Religious reading of sacred texts has been more nuanced and careful… So how can this new wave of atheist argument get away with such misuse of Scripture?  Only because vociferous groups of Christians also use and advocate just such blind simplistic readings.”

In an earlier article on a subject similar to this, he also wrote words so profoundly astute I must reiterate them here:

“So, the issue at heart is about a basic attitude of either skepticism or trust towards the object of study. Jim West’s person of faith trusts Scripture; therefore, he argues, their relationship to this object of study is different from, and richer than, the relationship a skeptical reading permits. By contrast, both Avalos and Lemche see such committed reading as full of social and intellectual dangers…. These two distinct genres of skepticism and trust should not be confused, for they are different…. What is needed is a frank recognition that there are two (related but different) disciplines studying the biblical texts. Then their practitioners need to identify more clearly what they do similarly and what they do differently. In such an environment, discussion of whether any, all, or no religious study of Scripture is scholarly might be possible without a slinging match. But that, of course, is not the world we live in, so we will no doubt continue to read abusive missives aimed from one set of trenches to another in the religious, as in the historical, wars.”

To be fair, I can’t say that I am responding directly to these articles as the former is concerned more with helping seminary students in Biblical Studies deal with the theological issues rather than the existentialism of what Tim calls ‘new atheism’ which is so much more common in Universities and the latter, an article in response to several discussions of the relevancy of Biblical Studies over at B&I, was about finding common footing as much as it was about establishing a dialogue.  Neither of these issues are the foci of this blog post.  However, their relevance is in the use of language which has become more pervasive in academia over the last few years.  Roland Boer recently published a collection of essays entitled Secularism and Biblical Studies (London: Equinox, 2010), which directly engages the debate; what is the value of secular critical scholarship and what impact is it having–or could it potentially have–on Biblical Studies?  “Coming out of current debates that have been flaring within biblical studies over the issue of secularism, the essays crystallize the various positions that have been taken.” (via)

Yet, what is in need of clarification is why such distinctions exist at all.  A few years ago, when I was first introducing myself to modern critical scholarship, I saw a flux of archetypes which in truth, for all my trials, I could find no real substance.  Terms like ‘critical scholar’ and ‘conservative scholar’ and ‘liberal’ were tossed around as if such blatant fictional topoi were living and breathing individuals.  And, I must confess, I did fall into such a trap.  Niels Peter Lemche reminds us that such tactics have existed for some time and Philip R. Davies even dedicates substantial time to the discussion in his Memories of Ancient Israel (Louisville: WJK, 2008).  However, Philip has done us a great service by isolating the value of the argument rather than the label by focusing–not so much on terms like ‘minimalist’ and ‘maximalist’ (though he does to some extent)–on the value of trust and the value of doubt (esp. pp. 124-169).

Trust and doubt have a large role to play in the study of the ancient world.  Since history is a field formulated in and upon inductive, rather than the deductive, investigations, what will inevitably happen is that someone with more investment in the material will trust it more than a person who does not have in it as much of an investment.  This is a byproduct of many different vagaries of life and little of it, if any, has to do with Biblical Studies–or perhaps, it simply shouldn’t.

Alas, I may be naive in believing that scholarship can do away with such labels.  I know that the biggest criticism I will receive about this post is that my idealism is not well-grounded. Some arguments are rather ‘conservative’ or ‘maximalist’ or ‘evangelical’ or, perhaps, “too Christian (or Jewish)” and others will undoubtedly be more ‘liberal’, more ‘postmodern’, more ‘secular’–“too Dawkins-esque”.  But the problem with this terminology is that, as parts of language, these labels will bring in more than their share of cultural (or, as Roland Barthes might put it, their diachronic) contexts, many of which will simply not apply to the work or individual(s) to which the label is being applied.

Unfortunately, too many people are working against me on this.  I do not believe that secularism is the cure for Biblical Studies.  I do not believe we need to limit secularism, either.  Jim West is probably more right than he knows when he wrote:

“It seems to me, at any rate, that biblical studies cannot move forward any further along the historical-critical path alone. Furthermore, it seems to me that the only useful approach to biblical studies which can move us forward is theological exegesis. And, to be honest, returning to our roots in theological exegesis as practiced most efficiently in the Reformation writings of Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin.”

It’s certainly true that “historical-critical tools are useful but…Theological exegesis is the missing link in most modern biblical scholarship.” (ibid.)  And I’m sure Jim would argue that the only way to exegete Theologically (correctly) is to have faith (and being a Baptist wouldn’t hurt either–eh, Jim?).  But what he doesn’t argue for is fundamentalism, even if many out there would say otherwise (yes, I’m looking at you John Loftus).  Jim’s quite astute and an excellent scholar; I would value his exegetical prowess over Sam Harris or John Loftus (even if he were still a Christian) and put more stock in his interpretations, even if they lean away from what many would call “secularism”.  The Bible wasn’t written by new atheists (unless, by some crazy coincidence, Carl Sagan invented a time machine, lent it to Bart Ehrman and Hector Avalos, and sent them back to do just that…)–though I have heard it argued that Job didn’t believe in God (this is neither here nor there).  But the Bible was not written, collected, nor edited by Baptists, Reformers (well, maybe just the KJV), or Catholics either, for that matter, regardless of what Pope Benedict would have you believe.  And Jim seems to have a better grasp of that than his detractors–and Tim Bulkeley was right to point out their misuse and abuse of scripture.   But again we come back to labels, don’t we?  Jim West, though a Baptist and seminarian, and pastor (who, admittedly, puts people to sleep), still recognizes that:

In sum, the Bible, from beginning to end, is primarily interested in God. The stage is set in the opening verse of Genesis where we learn, “In the beginning, God….” The Bible’s aim is not to tell a historical tale; its aim is to tell a theological tale. For that reason its authors, minimalists all, recognized that their work and aim and calling was something other than to use traditions and tales for historical reconstruction. “What, when, and how” were of no interest to them at all; but “why and who” mattered supremely.

In other words Jim, like his portrayal of the authors of the Biblical narratives, has little interest (if any) in the historiographical background of the narratives.  So it may be shocking to see him putting the contradictions on display as he does, because he, like other scholars, knows full well that “contradiction” is just as anachronistic a phrase for an ancient author as was “historiography”.  Does one really believe that the author of 1 Kings was any more interested in history than the Dionysius of Halicarnassus or Josephus or Livy?  Does anyone believe they were less interested?  Perhaps, but then they can argue that at the next scholarly colloquium.  In the end, what matters is not the position that Jim holds here, but that he is defying a stereotype which I feel is often applied to Christians by other, more “secular” scholars.  Indeed, the reverse is just as true.  By generalizing about new atheists, Tim Bulkeley has committed himself to tearing down Old Misery’s house.   When one follows a part of a school or train of judgment, fabricating and building upon existing archetypes (i.e. the evil atheist or fundamentalist Christian), the arguments–the discussions–fall through the cracks.  Albert Schweitzer recognized this fabrication in his day, when analyzing the first quest for the historical Jesus.

The mistake was to suppose that Jesus could come to mean more to our time by entering into it as a man like ourselves. That is not possible. First because such a Jesus never existed. Secondly because, although historical knowledge can no doubt introduce greater clearness into an existing spiritual life, it cannot call spiritual life into existence. History can destroy the present; it can reconcile the present with the past; can even to a certain extent transport the present into the past; but to contribute to the making of the present is not given unto it.

And his conclusion cements the very reason why such labels are useless:

“Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from Him and flows through our time also. This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery. It is the solid foundation of Christianity.”  The Quest for the Historical Jesus (London: A. & C. Black, 1910), 397-98; German original: Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1906)

This perspective was echoed, also, by the students of Bultmann.  Bornkamm wrote, quite prophetically of the current dilemma:

“Why have these attempts failed? Perhaps only because it became alarmingly and terrifyingly evident how inevitably each author brought the spirit of his own age into his presentation…” G. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 13

Where is all of this leading; I know that is the question going through a lot of readers’ minds.  I suppose my conclusion is that labels are not useful; they do not contribute to the end-goal of academia.  Let’s face it, is secularism really a bad thing?  Is religious theology?  Is spirituality?  I tend to believe all are necessary.  Is there one systematic approach to the answers about the past?  Is there one way to teach seminary students about the Bible without making them schizophrenic? At a university, is there a way to educate the student about the value of Theology and a spiritual reading responsibly?  The question I would ask is, is there really a single, methodological way to teach the Bible?  When we say Dever is a Maximalist, or that James McGrath is a progressive, what are we really doing?  What exactly is Dever putting his faith in and, conversely, what is it that McGrath is not?  When we read William Dever’s contributions to scholarship, are we going to find postmodern thoughts and arguments, minimalistic perspectives, and some doubts as well?  Certainly we will, because Dever is as much a product of his day as were the historical Jesus scholars of Schweitzer’s and Bornkamm’s.  But I’m sure if Dever read my post here, saw that I labeled an argument of his as minimalistic, he’d probably object (and I would probably object if someone labeled something I wrote as maximalistic).  But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, or that there is no common ground.  Labels are not so much wrong in that they can’t be true; labels are wrong in that they oversimplify and muddy the water.  They cause confusion when there is none, they force us to misread, misinterpret, and misjudge.

We forget simple things; Theology is just as important as critically analyzing the historical competency of the author.  History is inductive and so we must induce things about the past that are sometimes wrong.  Oh well.  Atheists, secularists, agnostics, should not fear the thought of having to use theology to exegete and, conversely, theists, Christians, evangelicals should not fear reason and critical perspectives about the historical core of the Biblical narratives.  As Schweitzer remarks, such a history may never have existed–but the past has no grasp on the present, in that it can change it.  I believe Tim is correct:

“If we continue as we have been, seeking to separate faith from biblical studies, then all we can expect to foster are sharper and wilder fights between the extremists, with the middle ground left as a muddied no-man’s-land.”

As a friend of mine once said, “atheism and theism died in the trenches of World War 1.”  Indeed.  If we continue to fear each other, the answers will always elude us and, alas, the past as we know it will disappear to us entirely.

Subtle Revenge

What Really Happened at the last SBL Conference?

This heretofore secret photo has emerged showing some of our favorite bibliobloggers at the last SBL conference in Atlanta… I can’t be sure, but that might be James McGrath portraying Adam West…

Idiocy: Man Playing Real-Life ‘Frogger’ Hit by SUV

In what might be the biggest d’uh moment of the year, this bright beacon of hope for humanity didn’t seem to recall how the frogs went “splat” often before making it to the other side…

A man has been hospitalized after police in South Carolina say he was hit by an SUV while playing a real-life version of the video game “Frogger.”

Authorities said the 23-year-old man was taken to a hospital in Anderson after he was struck at around 9 p.m. Monday.

In the “Frogger” arcade game, players move frogs through traffic on a busy road and through a hazard-filled river. Before he was hit, police say the man had been discussing the game with his friends.

Chief Jimmy Dixon says the man yelled “go” and darted into oncoming traffic in the four-lane highway.

via Cops: Man playing real-life ‘Frogger’ hit by SUV – U.S. news – Weird news – msnbc.com.


Reading and Writing in Babylon – Dominique Charpin, (trans. Jane Marie Todd)

I am looking forward to this book.  Here is the blurb:


Over 5,000 years ago, the history of humanity radically changed direction when writing was invented in Sumer, the southern part of present-day Iraq. For the next three millennia, kings, aristocrats, and slaves all made intensive use of cuneiform script to document everything from royal archives to family records.

In engaging style, Dominique Charpin shows how hundreds of thousands of clay tablets testify to the history of an ancient society that communicated broadly through letters to gods, insightful commentary, and sales receipts. He includes a number of passages, offered in translation, that allow readers an illuminating glimpse into the lives of Babylonians. Charpin’s insightful overview discusses the methods and institutions used to teach reading and writing, the process of apprenticeship, the role of archives and libraries, and various types of literature, including epistolary exchanges and legal and religious writing.

The only book of its kind, Reading and Writing in Babylon introduces Mesopotamia as the birthplace of civilization, culture, and literature while addressing the technical side of writing and arguing for a much wider spread of literacy than is generally assumed. Charpin combines an intimate knowledge of cuneiform with a certain breadth of vision that allows this book to transcend a small circle of scholars. Though it will engage a broad general audience, this book also fills a critical academic gap and is certain to become the standard reference on the topic.

Amazon.com: Reading and Writing in Babylon (9780674049680): Dominique Charpin, Jane Marie Todd: Books.

Robber Quits his Job? In this Economy?!

So much for the American work ethic… Robbery: You’re not doing it right!

FULLERTON, Calif. — Authorities are looking for a man who tried to rob a fast-food drive-thru at gunpoint while wearing a plastic bag over his head but gave up when an employee shut the window and walked away.

A man with a brown plastic bag over his head pulled up to the drive-thru window in a “small” vehicle, pointed a black handgun at an employee and demanded money, Basham said.

The employee responded by shutting the drive-through window and walking off, Basham said, and the would-be robber drove away in an unknown direction.

via Gunman with plastic-bag mask fails to rob drive-thru – Local News – Orange County, CA – Santa Ana, CA – msnbc.com.

(Addendum: It is good that no one was hurt and this depraved person was foiled by a glass window)

Egyptian Priests’ Names in Pottery

Pretty cool!  This is precisely why, as the slant always goes, one cannot “erase history”.  It is never true that the “victors write history” because, regardless of whether or not a community disappears–like the one below–they never vanish.

Broken pieces of clay pottery have revealed the names of dozens of Egyptian priests who served at the temple of a crocodile god, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) announced.

Engraved with text dating back to the Roman period, the small potsherds have been found by Italian archaeologists on the west side of the temple dedicated to the crocodile god Soknopaios in Soknopaiou Nesos, an Egyptian village in the Fayoum oasis.

Called ostraca from the Greek word ostrakon (meaning “shell”) the inscribed pot fragments “have been very helpful in illuminating the religious practices and the prosopography of Greco-Roman Egypt,” the SCA said in a statement.

via Egyptian priests’ names preserved in pottery – Technology & science – Science – DiscoveryNews.com – msnbc.com.

Aliens on a Mission to Destroy Earth in 2012? Nope.

Although, apparently, some 2012 conspiracy theorists would have you believe they were.  Thankfully, some people on the interwebs have been dissolving these rumors and setting people on the correct path (that is, the path with the most amount of supporting evidence).

If you repeat UFO fiction often enough, does it eventually get reported as fact? Yes … especially if you add in a 2012 doomsday angle and some dodgy astronomical imagery. Fortunately, an Internet truth squad finally knocked down this alien invasion.

Claims that we’re about to be visited by alien spaceships are generally a dime a dozen (or a quatloo a dozen?), but for some reason one particular urban legend about “Giant Spaceships Heading Towards Earth” kept itself alive for more than a year, mostly by metastasizing on UFO forums. From the very beginning, the reports pointed to three eerie blue-green shapes on Sky-Map.org’s archived imagery from the Digitized Sky Survey. “Trust me you will be very amazed. I WAS FOR SURE!!!!” one commenter wrote in February.

via Cosmic Log – Alien invaders vs. the truth squad.

I know that James McGrath was anticipating the arrival of the alien fleet, finally thinking he would meet some ET’s, alas it looks like he will have to wait a bit longer.  In other news, I’m still really excited about the arrival of aliens–of a Steven Spielberg variety.

Tim Bulkeley on Reading the Scriptures

Over at B&I there is a great article posted by Tim Bulkeley which I believe a lot of my friends and colleagues could benefit from.  I wish to address the issue of labels at some point; this article is a good example of why we need to be careful when making any cultural generalizations.

The Bible’s most vociferous cultured despisers, the so-called neo-atheists, argue that (read literally as some sort of instruction manual) the Bible supports all sorts of barbarity. Christopher Hitchens calls it “a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human animals.”1 Sam Harris points out that thankfully few Christians follow the advice of Dt 13:7-11 and stone to death any of our children who convert to other faiths.2 That’s not strange, the challenge they pose is a reasonable and necessary one. What is strange is that their reading of Scripture is one that Jewish and Christian tradition across the millennia has NOT practiced. Religious reading of sacred texts has been more nuanced and careful.

In this article I am not addressing those new Atheists, nor the a-religious biblical scholars, my target is those, like myself who teach Bible with religious motives, and in particular my fellow Christian biblical scholars who teach in seminaries.

via The Bible and Interpretation.

His most compelling point?

It was not only the University departments and faculties that were captured by the materialistic practical atheism of this wave of non-religious scholarship. Seminaries too have increasingly bought into4 these modern and post-modern styles of Bible reading. Students in these seminaries across the wealthy Western world (and in privileged, and so prestigious, Western-supported institutions elsewhere) learned more about J, E, D, & P or M, L, & Q than about the religious meaning of the Torah or of the teaching of Jesus.

This creeping, but near total, takeover by humanistic practical atheism5 in the academies does not seem to students to suggest ways to preach the Bible texts they study. Their teachers are more concerned to get the history, or the methodology right than to reveal spiritual significance. So the students become schizophrenic in their approach to Scripture: Atheist in scholarship, Fundamentalist in preaching or personal faith.

Quite a read.  Check it out.

Edit: Jim West is right to point out the following: “…except for the swipe at minimalist historiography. It is my opinion that minimalism FORCES us to think theologically about scripture instead of constricting it with some supposed historiographic slavery.”  I couldn’t agree more.

Falling Skies?

This looks good!  h/t to Joel Watts for the heads up!


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