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).