Saturday, May 19, 2007
  Biblical Studies and its "market"
The students in BSTHEO316 "Biblical Texts in Context" that I am teaching with Prof Wainwright are asked to keep a reading blog, and to comment on each others'. One of the students, Ryan Pellett (who gave me permission to quote him here) wrote this as part of his reply to a post about:

Sugirtharajah, R.S. "Scripture, Scholarship, Empire: Putting the Discipline in Its Place." Expository Times 117, no. 1 (2005): 2-11.
It seems to me and this is just a generalisation that theologians have some amazing insights into the Bible their work is so wordy and unreadable or widely unavailable that it’s only read by other academics. Its also seems that half the time of a theologian is spent taking small and not so small pot shots at other theologians.

Before I started this course I had never heard of any of the people we now study, and I would say it would be the same for most of you in the class. Unless you actively seek to know more, as we have done by studying theology, you never come across all this insightful work which brings me to my point.

What is the goal of a theology and theologians?

Is it to win the battle of popularity and bragging rights by publishing more books, however unreadable by the average person, and proving more of your pears ideas wrong then they can prove of yours?

Or is it to disseminate their insights to the church community as a whole so that we can benefit from their work. I know which one it should be but since I have never seen or heard of them in the 20 years I have spent at various churches I would have to say it’s the former which is a shame.

Is theological dissemination going to be left to people like us who take what we learn from the masters and spread it ourselves to those in our churches?
A large part of the problem, Ryan, is that the academic systems in which we operate either do not give us credit for writing "popular" works, or only give us small credit. So, the recent "Performance Based Research Funding" exercise in NZ which grades lecturers seems to give more credit for the more esoteric publications, and little or no credit for writing aimed at ordinary readers. Such writing does not count as research, but there is no other grading system in which such work does gain brownie points!

As a result of the way these systems discourage "popularisation", good biblical studies scholarship is seldom communicated in places that non-specialists read. Except by a few scholars, some of whom deliberately write books that will communicate to non-specialists. These scholars usually do not have stellar careers - they are most often employed by church-based theological colleges (seminaries), and so tend to be more conservative.

However, the way in which generations of pastors have failed to communicate much of what they studied has also led to a huge gulf between (almost) any sort of academically rigorous biblical studies and the way the Bible is read and used in church.

In Conservative churches, where the Bible is still regarded as the (or a very important) authority, the way in which scholars cite Bible passages to support points they are making has been understood as prooftexting. Most people in churches who seek to follow "the Bible's teaching" believe that one or two Bible verses can be read alone and mean something! Then add the approach to Scripture (largely driven by 20th century American Christian fundamentalists) that sees it as all of a piece, dictated word for word by God, and something like a makers manual for a car. By now you have effectively killed the Bible and turned it merely into a convenient cudgel to be used for beating your opponents to pulp.

In "Liberal" churches the situation is, if anything, worse. The Bible is seen as a merely human book, that it ceases to hold much authority at all, and is at best a source of some carefully selected or Bowdlerised stories to tell to Sunday School children (of whom there are very few left to listen). The resulting Politically Correct censored Bible has little of value to say, for its message is merely be good people and be nice to each other!

Now, after my moan, the good news! Thanks to the Internet it is easier today to get hold of good, stimulating, intelligent material about the Bible than ever before. There are dozens, perhaps now hundreds, of blogs written by biblical scholars. Many of them, like those listed in the side bar of this blog, and those they list in turn, present a good level of scholarship in ways that are easy to read. Soon there will be a wave of bibliopodcasts (or whatever we come to call audio files presented by biblical scholars). For now there are few, and most are not regular bite sized chunks, but solid meaty lectures. However do try guiding people to hear Amy Jill Levine of Vanderbilt Divinity School talking about Jesus and Women. Then they'll be begging you for tickets to her Auckland lecture!

And if that's too long for them, send them to hear my latest experiment 5 Minute Bible podcasts. They attempt to break complex ideas about studying the Bible seriously into short "bites".

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