Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On Post-Christian Biblical Scholarship

Many I've the posts I've written so far have been expressions of things I already think. This post is different, though, because I think I actually have to write it in order to understand better what in fact I do think. It's about the hard work of making hunches and intuitions into an articulation of coherent thought, a task easier said than done.

I'm struggling to figure out how exactly to continue to do biblical scholarship as an ex-, or rather, post-Christian. (I say "post" because, while I no longer remain a Christian, I'm very much aware of the ways in which I continue to be shaped by my Christian upbringing.) The struggle has to do primarily with a perceived (and possibly actual) lack of models. 

In my experience as a graduate student, I've seen basically three kinds of biblical scholars. The summaries of these three types, given after the jump, are not intended to be biting criticisms, but only to indicate some of my discomfort with each of them.
The first is the faith-driven scholar intent on producing scholarship that builds up the church (think places like WheatonFuller, or even the Duke School of Religion/Divinity School, all top-notch schools in their own right). Many of these scholars are Evangelical (in the broadest sense), and tend, in my opinion, to talk mostly amongst themselves, or to those within the Christian camp. Such scholarly work, though, does take into account how present-day concerns impinge upon our reading of the text.

Then there are the researchers and professors who view themselves as historians and literary critics, some of whom are deeply committed Christians, yet whose scholarship remains ostensibly objective and detached from real-world issues (e.g., the divinity schools at Chicago or Yale). Like other historians and/or literary critics, such scholars spend time establishing or maintaining their particular methodological quarter of scholarship.

The final model is the kind that draws out the some more visceral responses from me, largely because of how I felt about such scholarship before my recent deconversion. Prime examples are this model are Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, and Hector Avalos. Each of these scholars does quality work, but their intent—often explicitly stated—is to deconstruct the bible as any genuine source of revelation, and thereby undermine the foundation of Christian faith. At times, their work comes across as conversionist, taking the same tone as some Evangelicals in employing aggressive rhetorical tactics to convince their audience of their rightness. However, such scholars as these do see how their work can affect the real world in which they live.

As with all of these options, there are certainly exceptions, and no doubt my characterizations of any one of these models could be flawed by my limited perception. At any rate, it should suffice to say that I find none of them a satisfying option for my future as a biblical scholar.

So, I'm struggling to find a legitimate framework within which I can continue pursuing a field of research that I have grown to love. I guess I want to find a "goldilocks" zone between the "objective" yet detached-from-the-real-world model, on the one hand, and the aggressively anti-Christian model on the other. That is, I want to be able to do scholarship that matters for the real world and brings concerns from our world to that of biblical studies, and yet to do so in a way that shows how reading the biblical texts can actually contribute something positive to our world today. Perhaps a good example would be the ways in which exploring the social dynamics of the ancient Roman Empire could give the UK, the US, the UN, etc., warnings and guideposts for what has worked in the past and what hasn't.

One way to put it, I guess, is to say that I want to continue in the spirit of the Evangelical model of biblical scholarship, yet to do so without the insularity or the faith-based-ness of that model. I want to write about issues like environmentalism, human rights, civil liberties, politics, etc., and to use my exploration of the biblical texts to underwrite what I would say. Perhaps it's a pipe dream, but I would be spending my academic career doing something that I felt actually mattered (if to no one else but me). 

I think this has helped. There's still a lot of soul-searching that needs to take place in order to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of why I want to do what I'll do, but this is a start.

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