2007-10-02

keeping biblical scholarship from the people

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by Neil Godfrey

“Epilepsy is regarded as demon possession in the same book people use to condemn homosexuality.

“We have not brought biblical scholarship to people in the pews. I guess the clergy are scared to let the genie out of the bottle.”

That’s from a recent newspaper article.

This is what I liked about Spong when I first discovered his books and then had a chance to meet him soon afterwards. (It’s also one of the reasons for this blog.)

Biblical scholarship has too few of the sorts of books that science has, books that popularize without cheapening the findings of modern research for lay readers. There are not many Susan Greenfields or Steven Pinkers or Richard Dawkins or John Barrows or William Clarks or Jared Diamonds or Paul Davies or Robyn Williams or Tim Flannerys on the biblical bookshelves.

There are lots of religious books, too many, but they are the maudlin stuff for “the spirit” and not for those wanting to catch up with what the scholars have been learning.

At a time when I had come to question my church, I went on to question my religious beliefs, then I could see no reason not to continue to push the questions to the limits of the Bible, and finally God. I was surprised how my intellectual enquiries were encouraged by other faithful “only so far” — one can question a controversial religious position, but encouragement to continue questioning soon dried up when one went beyond the edges. Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism was one of the very few that filled that gap. (I can’t think of any others at the moment but will try and fill in this space at a future date . . . . )

I did find some whiffs of fresh air from being able to eavesdrop and sometimes contribute on internet discussion groups where biblical scholars exchanged views.

But those same discussion groups also exposed the dark side of that branch of academia: it was not at all uncommon to find doctors and professors arrogantly attacking the less scholarly — or even the more educated but in “the wrong field” — for daring to ask questions about the fundamentals of their scholarly paradigms. (Or sometimes questions were allowed but only when they were couched in obsequious deference — “the right attitude” that proved they would not attempt to rock the boat. Due deference is, after all, at the heart of religious prerogative. This did not apply to all — there are many good people among biblical scholars, but not enough.)

Some still go in boots and all and slander any person not of their respected academy for criticizing any of their works. Some even assert that people who have not studied in their specialist areas for as long as they have or who have not published as much as they have have “no right” to utter anything but respectful comment.

This is nothing but another form of cult mind-control. Intellectual snobbery and bullying.

One does not find it in the physical sciences. In the physical sciences there are institutions with programs to inform the public — in lay language — of the latest findings and ongoing explorations of science.

But among theological and biblical scholars there is very often only insult and abuse directed at “the unwashed” who have genuine questions and reasonable critiques.

Plato and his latter day echo, Leo Strauss, believed that philosophy and esoteric knowledge belong to the elite and crude religion for the masses. Scholars who disagree — like Spong — become the targets of insult and slander. The Leo Straussian approach is found among too many scholars within theology and biblical studies.

Intellectuals have a greater responsibility to society. But as Chomsky has commented, too often they become merely the defenders of their own privileges. (The message of his 1967 article has not aged one bit in 40 years.)

These scholars share the greater burden of the blame for the current rise of the more popular fundamentalist movements with the social consequences of their ignorance and bigotries. Dawkins is right on the money when he blames “soft religion” for sharing responsibility for the rise of extremism.

Those popular movements do, after all, share the same attitudes of arrogance, snobbery and vicious contempt for those who dare challenge the learned wisdom of too many of their “intellectual superiors”.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “keeping biblical scholarship from the people”

  1. I have since added to my original post:

    “I was surprised how my intellectual enquiries were encouraged by other faithful “only so far” — one can question a controversial religious position, but encouragement to continue questioning soon dried up when one went beyond the edges.”

    and one corrective:

    “(Or sometimes questions were allowed but only when they were couched in obsequious deference — “the right attitude” that proved they would not attempt to rock the boat. Due deference is, after all, at the heart of religious prerogative. This did not apply to all — there are many good people among biblical scholars, but not enough.)”

    Another aspect of this topic deserves attention too, and that is the frequent overlap between biblical studies and “witnessing for Jesus”. I should have been warned by the sideways references to worship and “witness” in some scholarly books on the Bible and not have been so surprised at the number of times when scholars would challenge me, in the middle of intellectual discussions, on the state of my soul or even my relationship with Jesus!

    Is it this double-loyalty — to both scholarship and faith — that paralyzes biblical scholars from the ability or wish to popularize their findings the way science is only too willing to do?

  2. Vridar
    There are many like you who continue the questioning process. But are unable to straddle the canyon of tinkering with the “divine”.

    Unfortunately the christian gospel in it’s diaspora needed the fishers of men concept and modern day similarly needs the “witnessing” ideal.

    In this sceanrio it is not possible to have a questioning dialogue accept as a back slider, agnostic or be labelled an atheist.
    Don’t mean to be negative, but articles like yours will hopefully awaken an ideal for questioning all things in a scientific manner.
    winslie

  3. Thank you for the post. I do not know if a loyalty to scholarship and faith paralyzes biblical scholars, or if it is a fear among scholars that a loss of faith due to the public’s misunderstanding of the implications of findings. I see the Bible as a means to come to an understanding with something that is beyond myself and within myself. Faith lets me make the leap to this truth. However, any work by man or being delivered by man will be tainted by that man’s views. Most people cannot make a separation between the greater truth that they would find with faith, and the implications of where a biblical author obtained his inspiration. Maybe the scholars fear the lack of mental development to handle a crisis in faith. I have faith in humanity’s ability to progress further, but I see many individuals who do not have the desire to sharpen their own mind, and scholars do not know how to approach this group, without offense.

  4. Pain and some offence are unavoidable. Only courage will help pull many people through the implications. But as long as that courage is lacking on the part of so much of the current intellectual leadership there is no hope.

  5. When scholars start to speculate about Joseph not being able to find a room in Bethlehem, and conclude that it is because a higher ranking relative must have been occupying a guest room, then is it not time to ask what all this scholarship is built on?

    Only an example….

    Perhaps a better example is scholars determining the approximate date of the death of Bartimaeus by observing that one work mentions his name, while another recounts the same story about him, but omits his name.

  6. Response to Steven Carr:

    Oh good grief! I wasn’t even thinking of the likes of Tabor and Bauckham when I scribbled my little piece. They do write as cartoon wolves in scholarly clothing for the sheep. But can anyone even imagine the likes of Mack, Pervo, Hock, Thompson even knowing how to talk with them in a serious academic discussion? I once heard someone ask Spong how his scholarship was received in comparison with Thiering, and then recalling how Wright dismisses the works of both Spong and Thiering as fundamentally flawed. But Wright believes scholarship should work on the assumption that corpses can resuscitate.

    I’m willing to bet that theology/biblical studies is unique in academia for tolerance of such a wide divergence of intellectual standards and values within its field.

    Maybe the first step should be for biblical scholars (theology scholars will have to choose if they want biblical studies OR theology) to move across into history or classics departments — and have their tenure measured on the same peer-review standards as other historians and classicists.

  7. Winslie,

    I read your article. I don’t understand the connection between the books of the bible and God. First because I don’t know what you mean by “God”, and secondly because I would have thought the prima facie evidence is that the biblical books were written by ancient (non-god-but-human-type) scribes. No doubt scribes were associated with specific institutions within their societies. Where does the idea come from that they were written by something you call “God”, whatever that is?

  8. Neil
    I forgot that you topic has “scholarship” in the title. Mine is not meant to be but rather I meant it to be amusing, thus the title – Bible is God’s Blog

    I want people to accept it, as you say “ancient writings” and nothing more.

    Thanks for taking the time and for your response.

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