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.

14 Responses

  1. i think tim simply doesn’t understand what minimalism is about and what it can achieve.

  2. Truth.

  3. I’m probably more of a minimalist than a maximalist. For example, in the prophetic books (especially Amos) which I have studied most closely I doubt there is much “history” we know nothing or near nothing about the eponymous characters’ counterparts in the real world. Any attempt to uncover the “historical Amos” or the “historical Jeremiah” is an exercise in creative fiction.

    BUT do you really think that the answer to the malaise of biblical studies in church and seminary can be cured by a good dose of minimalist historiography? It won’t be, any more than the liberal dressings of (Al)bright helped! What’s needed is more radical.

  4. Hi Tim! I need to add you to my blogroll. I do quite enjoy your articles over at B&I. To answer your question, I don’t think any one method will work. To educate anyone (and I say this as someone who was once in the atheist camp, but is no longer), including atheists and theists alike, the method must always be a mixture of minimalism and theology and spirituality; exegesis can only be done in this way, as it is. But the level to which one ascribes these traits is based purely on the verse, the context, and the audience, as far as it goes. I am not so sure any one method would work.

  5. […] to trumpet, and which is accompanied by a flattering portrait ;) and Tom Verenna a longer piece: Tim Bulkeley on Reading the Scriptures. I do hope these signs of interest prove out, I’d love to see more reflection and argument […]

  6. as someone who doesn’t subscribe to any camps or societies (apart from being a member of NZ Green Party and Greenpeace..), what do you mean by the atheist ‘Camp’? Are you suggesting a ‘camper’ as one who would affiliate themselves with the likes of the religious ignorances of Dawkins and co and well as the obnoxious rhetoric of the apparently notorious ‘Ophelia Benson’ (who incidentally objected to me on the grounds that my profile photo is anti feminist and conveys to her someone who is all about pretense. Sad really – her concept of feminism is unlike mine where feminism is about maintaining one’s identity and equal status in an egalitarian country which were the first to give women the vote. Not only is religion evil and needing to be abolished to Ophelia Benson but femininity, and probably sex too, are deceptive and evil as well). Is that the atheist ‘camp’ Tom?

  7. Well, I wouldn’t be so bold as to pretend to know the minds of every atheist (or theist) and what they believe or don’t believe. That sort of generalization is not realistic. However, I might say that a ‘camp’ is the vocal side of the discussion, wherein ‘campers’ are those who openly ascribe to that vocal side. Their individual views, of course, are beyond my scope of knowledge.

  8. I love you too, steph!

  9. yes – I agree. I think it is a predominantly american phenomenon though – the vocal (and I’m just learning that 1 in 4 are creationists with a depressingly minimal decrease of belief in the supposedly higher ‘educated’) – and that perhaps fundamentalism has been a symptom of growing secularisation. Fundamentalism responds, from the five fundamentals to new little offspring bursting into life and with this, a ‘holy ignorance’ and forgetting of history. Atheists have responded and the gap between widens each time either group gets louder. With atheists comes the religious ignorance and typifying religion with fundamentalism – often – which is so dramatic in America with the Bible Belt. While NZ is a secular country (non believing PMs recently) I think we support a widely diverse religious community and are more focused on interfaith relationships. The latent Christian culture isn’t offensive like the religion in politics of America is, and we all say ‘happy Christmas’ regardless of faith. The average Kiwi I know, has never heard of Dawkins or Hitchens and fundamentalist churches that there are, I think are mainly in Auckland. And we are a laid back beach bumming easy going lazy society, life is slower and we care less about heros (and contemporary messiahs) I think. Belief and unbelief is more of a private thing. The atheist extremist (in America) has often come out of a fundamentalist background and has something to resent, but it’s their anti religious and religious ignorance and obnoxious self righteousness that I find lamentable to say the least. The thing is … they actually ‘know’ nothing for sure. I’m hesitant to be identified as an atheist at all. In some ways I am agnostic because although I’ve never believed – I just couldn’t even when I was small and I do remember trying – and am sure I never could or will believe in any gods at all, I have no explanation of reality or existence so I don’t know a bloody thing. And I don’t like stepping on the toes of people I respect. If they believe, let it be.

  10. I belong to the hermenteutical church of suspicion and I do not have faith that you are telling the truth, Ophelia :D

  11. Do people really google their name?! What a horrible paranoid world we live in.

  12. […] mean the cuddly part. She derailed someone else’s thread – some theology type – to say how horrible I am. Apropos of absolutely nothing. I mean, it’s like a clown suddenly […]

  13. I do love the name though. Until recently I might have called a daughter Ophelia, I might still call a cat Ophelia but I never want to replace Delilah. Ophelia is one of my favourite – my favourite – Shakespearean woman and my favourite pre raphaelite figure. Especially Millais’ Ophelia…

  14. fluffy? Malice? I don’t think so – she’s an interesting case study.

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