Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Biblical scholars are boring

Most people I know who study and teach the Bible professionally got into this gig because they found the Bible religiously compelling – or religiously troubling (and hence, compelling).

Most of what they write and teach is not. Graduate school prepares us to say a thousand boring things about the book that we used to (and still might) regard as a source of blazing hope, radical challenge, or dreadful prejudice.

So much is common knowledge. People call on biblical scholars (seldom) if they want to be especially “responsible.” That is, if they wish to take into fuller account the vagaries of history – the shifting sands of textual transmission, the complex and detailed processes of religious evolution, the nagging, nitty-gritty texture of particular scriptural texts. Biblical scholars excel at qualification: the footnote: the technicality. I suppose that is a useful service. Perhaps in the high Enlightenment the work of biblical scholars represented a more widely meaningful achievement. Newspapers of the Victorian era ran stories about source criticism or the discovery of Babylonian texts, findings that called into question the reliability and uniqueness of the Bible. There was still enough Christendom around to feel the anxiety. Now, however, biblical scholars nitpick. No sizeable public (whether within or outside of religious communities) is enchanted or wracked by their research.

If as a class, biblical scholars are almost incapable of saying anything profound about the Bible, where then are the places where the Bible is generating new visions, new life, new radicalism? Where is it connecting with the deepest human realities of our day? Is it in the churches? Maybe some places. Most preaching that I am aware of, whether conservative or liberal, handles the Bible but glancingly, as a springboard for pop psychological reflection, calls to social justice, or reinforcement of one moral code or another. Is it the professional theologians? I doubt that also. Most of them treat the Bible even more weakly than beleaguered, multitasking pastors. Is it in some other sector of the academe? Are the comparative lit people rolling out explosive new readings of the Bible? Are the anthropologists or critical theorists? They are all producing interesting things on the Bible. Helpful things, maybe.

Perhaps it’s too tall an order, too high an expectation I have – or I’ve passed over isolated instances within each of the above named camps that do in fact draw on the Bible compellingly. I think that is probably true. But I am also thinking that the really arresting uses of the Bible do not happen in places that care about the “responsibility” that is the métier of biblical specialists. Because what is required of religiously – and humanly! – compelling exegesis is not technical prowess. That helps. But I believe what is needed is depth of character; depth of conviction; depth of openness to God; depth of pathos; depth of involvement in the world (I am reminded of Brevard Childs’ exhortation to a PhD student who asked how he could improve his exegesis. “Become a deeper person!” he is reported to have replied). For me, it is hard to parse out the difference between the seriousness of certain people’s faith-driven investment in the plight of the world and the seriousness of their use of the Bible. Perhaps there is none, in the end. But people like Bonhoeffer, Cone, and Käsemann stand tall, and behind them, their numberless confederates who joined in and contributed to their serious and sacrificial handlings of the Bible. Perhaps not up to scholarly snuff – “irresponsible,” even, in certain respects – but galvanizing.

Today I went and looked up a comparison I remembered Childs made. I will quote, from an article he wrote entitled “Interpreting the Bible Amid Cultural Change.” Remember, this penned by a man whose scholarly work fundamentally descended from Gunkel’s approach:
Hermann Gunkel, a leading Old Testament scholar in Europe, had written the definitive commentary on Genesis and, with an unmatched brilliance, brought to bear on his interpretation the full range of ancient Near Eastern parallels. For Gunkel, chapter 1 of Genesis was a reworking from a Hebrew perspective of the Babylonian creation myth, a reworking that retained much of the mythology in a broken, vestigial form. Gunkel emphasized Israel's unique ideological construal of a common cultural tradition, and he sought, in the spirit of German romanticism, to instill an aesthetic appreciation for the creative genius of this ancient, primitive document.
Then, in the winter semester of 1932, a young Privatdozent in Berlin, who was not especially well trained in Old Testament, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave a series of lectures entitled Creation and Fall with the subtitle A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1-3. Bonhoeffer began his lectures not with JEDP but with Genesis 1:1 : "In the beginning God..." He wrote:
The Bible begins with God's free affirmation, ... free revelation of himself. ... In the beginning, out of freedom, out of nothing, God created the heavens and the earth. This is the comfort with which the Bible addresses us ... who are anxious before the false void, the beginning without a beginning and the end without an end. It is the gospel, it is the resurrected Christ of whom one is speaking here. God is in the beginning and he will be in the end.... The fact that he lets us know this is mercy, grace, forgiveness and comfort.
What a different vision from that of Gunkel! Were they even reading the same text? What caused Bonhoeffer to plunge suddenly into a new dimension of reality?
Of course, what is compelling to one will not be to another, and that has much to do with our communities and dispositions. There is a danger – especially for Childs, but for lots of us – that what we find religiously profound will simply amount to repetitions of our brand of orthodoxy, maybe in surprising new language. Gunkel’s condescending aesthetics didn’t move Childs, while Bonhoeffer’s Christological reading did. By the same token, Robert Alter may revolutionize someone’s world and Ellen Davis, another’s. But what I was struck by today – what provoked this post – was the fact that those in the biblical studies guild who most want to articulate the Bible’s present-day significance sometimes seem helpless to do so (whether by training or demeanor). Today in a New Testament Theology seminar, we discussed the work of James D.G. Dunn. We criticized him roundly for his failure to attend to the historical particularity of the NT writings. But I also raised a criticism on the other end: for as much as he wishes to affirm the theologically dynamic character of the NT, his book about it was pretty boring (at least religiously; as an obscurantist, plenty of it was enthralling in other ways).


  1. 'Graduate school prepares us to say a thousand boring things about the book that we used to (and still might) regard as a source of blazing hope, radical challenge, or dreadful prejudice."

    Makes me wonder about the role of the historical critical method in all this and if it was really much of an improvement over earlier forms of exegesis. I think about the early church and their rich and creative history of interpretation and how modern commentaries can rarely compete with them.

    But here's to trying to be biblical scholars that can reflect the blazing hope/mystery/beauty/messiness of the Bible in what we write and teach!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Jen! Yes, I haven't given up on historical criticism yet...(in fact, it has always seemed that growing into a sense for the contingency and texture of the PAST ought to transfer to a more developed sensibility for the contingency and texture of the PRESENT, but that is not always or often the case; see here http://kaleidobible.blogspot.com/2012/10/scandinavians.html). But I DO hope we can be the exception and practice the kind of scholarship you describe! Let's talk more about that.

  3. I wonder if they are boring because they are trying so hard to come up with something new, that they depart from the profound. Do profound statements come from us talking about something, or from that thing itself talking to us? The comparison comes to mind of sports commentators--I personally do not care or remember what they say when I am watching a game, yet their voice is there informing those epic moments (usually helping me to understand what just happened). There is an influence to be had in their interpretation/commentary, but it is not greater than the thing they speak of. Where I start to get bored (and frustrated, well to be honest irritated) is when people stop understanding themselves as a passing commentator to a more glorious moment apart from themselves; it is when they stop pointing to profound things and try to be profound themselves. Few succeed.
    But I am probably approaching this from a completely different angle and interest than you, having no personal investment in being an academic scholar of the Bible. Maybe that is where I go wrong.

  4. Haha -- hello, Amy! definitely you're right, part of the boringness of biblical scholars IS trying to come up with something new, which must inevitably be something tiny and insignificant, given how much has already been said about the Bible over the past centuries. And I like the analogy -- you don't want your commentators to draw much attention to themselves, just guide you through the epic sports moments (and the humdrum ones). I don't think anybody says anything profound through trying to. So. You're right.

  5. Very helpful, Colin; thanks for the post. As we talked about last week, there's a wealth of rich and wacky texts in the Bible - how is it we become so inured to the text's richly imaginative potential?
    Childs' take on Bonhoeffer is interesting, and I think you skewered something in your talk of "repetitions of orthodoxy." Bonhoeffer's works work for Childs because, genetically, they both owe a lot to Barth. I also find this tradition helpful. But is it possible to get beyond what merely resonates and rhymes with our own theological background? You seem to be reaching for this at the end, but didn't quite locate it. More?