For Whom Do We Write? On Biblical Scholars and the Church . . . .

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We had one of my colleagues at Baylor, his wife, and son over for supper last night.  SBL quickly became a topic of conversation.  My friend’s wife asked me what my paper was on, or if it was “too complicated.”  Knowing my wife can’t stand to hear me talk about schooling any more than I do already, I replied the latter.  In earnest, though, this would not be my usual move.  But this exchange got me thinking yet again about a topic that has been at the forefront for me recently: as biblical scholars, for whom do we write?  There are two possible answers: other academics, or the church?

Much of what we do as biblical scholars is of interest only to other biblical scholars, and that even is not always the case!  But many of us write and submit to academic journals that will be read by other academics or students of the discipline.  The layperson in the pew will likely not hear our detailed lexical argument, nor care much about ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Genesis creation story or to Job and how they might inform the text.   Put simply, biblical scholars will often, obviously, write at a level beyond what a layperson should be expected to understand.  A former professor of mine once asked whether we, as biblical scholars, were the “elite” (his term).  In a way, the answer is yes.  But I’m not so sure that is the way it should be.

Yet, if we write for the edification of the church, how is that message to be disseminated responsibly?  Pastors?  Perhaps.  But at the same time, much of biblical scholarship is seen (a priori, mind you) as inimical to the vision and mission of the church.  I have said elsewhere that the church and the academy are, I think, asking quite different questions.  That is fine.  But I do think much of what we do is important for the edification of those who worship, be they Christians or Jews.  The difficulty then lies in how one shares that information.

In my judgment, the biblical scholar plays dual yet complementary roles: in academia, and in the church.  If one is a member and attends church or synagogue, I feel it is important for that person to take a proactive approach towards incorporating the task of biblical studies into the church, hopefully inculcating in those who attend a deeper understanding of various matters that may be of interest.  For instance, my teacher Bill Bellinger leads an adult sunday school class weekly at his church.  In the past he has addressed the Jacob cycle (which actually, he tells me, involved some parishioners noting God’s seeming complicity in deception . . . . that’s a smart church!) and the entire gospel of Mark, including the complexity with the ending.  I know other bloggers out there, Chris Heard and Bryan Bibb among them, have taught special sessions at churches on various academically suited topics.  This, to me, is imperative.

Now, I am not suggesting a church be led through a rigorous grammatical analysis of Habakkuk 3’s poetry (which, if you haven’t worked through it, is quite complex, and the suggestions in BHS’ critical apparatus don’t lessen the difficulty) or even be forced to tackle questions of Pentateuchal authorship.  What I do suggest, though, is the necessity of grounding in the text, and the issues that accompany the text.  So how does reading, for instance, Job, affect your view of God?  Of humanity?  Creation?  What do Jeremiah’s ‘laments’ say, again, about God?  About prophecy?  These are issues a congregation can wrestle with, and which can only serve to enhance their understanding of worship and of the biblical text. 

In the future, when I (hopefully soon) find a teaching position, this is something I very much want to take part in.  My role as a biblical scholar extends beyond simply churning out articles for tenure (although that is a vital component of success and sustainability!); if that work is not in service in some way, implicitly or explicitly, to the life of faith, it is worth little. 

One final clarification: I do not mean to imply by the previous sentence that one’s scholarship must be governed by the norms and doctrines of the church.  In fact, quite the opposite; biblical scholarship should seek to inform the church.  Any good and responsible theology is, at bottom, biblically based.  For instance, while some may not accept it, I view my work on YHWH as divine trickster to be in service to the life of faith by pointing to a realistic portrayal of God as seen in the biblical text elsewhere (Deuteronomistic History, Psalms, Job, etc.) and also a portrayal of God that, in a way, speaks to the reality, tensions, and absurdities of life.  The church and/or the synagogue may accept this word or it may not.  But it is a word that is worthy of being shared.  What good, then, is biblical scholarship if it stays within a particular, “elite” circle?  If we are indeed the “elite” in this regard–and we may indeed be–then does that not all the more imbue us with a responsibility to not only our own faith community, but any faith community who will hear us?

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23 thoughts on “For Whom Do We Write? On Biblical Scholars and the Church . . . .

    Rob Kashow said:
    August 2, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    John,

    This also is something that is definitely on my mind often. I think it is also evident on my blog. At times I write about stuff that few would understand. At other times I write about stuff that academics would find so elementary they would vomit over it (e.g. 5 views on drinking). For me though, something so simple needs to be broken down to the lay person. How can they understand the arguments of critical scholars if somebody does break it down into bite sized pieces explaining this view and that.

    I also would add one audience that you have not listed. I on occasion will often blog for me. Even though I am my own audience with certain posts and I’ll know that something is not going to draw any attention, I’ll post just for the sake of organizing my thoughts or venting.

    Jason said:
    August 2, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    Timely post, John. Though I am no scholar (yet!), as a pastor I see the tremendous need for learned biblical teaching in the church. My life was changed during my studies in seminary as I sat under godly and learned men who devoted their lives to the study of Scripture and to the body of Christ. My heart and mind were significantly shaped and molded during those years and I have sought to bring a similar change to my congregation.

    Several years ago, I preached/taught a series on the Bible, discussing various aspects of textual transmission, extra-biblical writings, the canon, etc. because it seemed most people were simply unaware of these matters. It was generally well received and, I think, generally helpful. I think that many people in churches like mine are simply not interested in “all that book learnin’,” so they cozy up with their precious interpretations and go about their Christian life. (How will I tell them I have all but abandoned the literal six-day-creation interpretation!?!)

    Anyway, all that to say that I, too, feel that the academy should inform the church. As one prof told me not too long ago, “We need more PhDs in the pulpit.” I couldn’t agree more!

    Jae Han said:
    August 2, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    Hello John,

    My name is Jae. I’ve been following your blog for a bit but this is my first time commenting. I am an aspiring academic (though it might change!). The questions that you asked are the same reservations that I have about going into academia; how can I affect change or have a meaningful impact on the church outside of academia? What does that even mean, academic in service of the Church?

    Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone outside of academia is really interested in, as the commenter above posted, “all that book learnin'” :) And even if they are, it seems only nominally so; it becomes just data people store in the back of their heads, not affecting real change in their thinking. (or maybe I’m just cynical)

    The above comment by Pastor Jason encourages me, though. Thanks!

    Roy "Eli" Garton said:
    August 3, 2009 at 12:05 am

    While in seminary, I had the priviledge of having a local pastor’s blessing to teach a weekly class on Genesis 1-11 as mytho-poetic literature. While to scholars this may at first sound innocuous, I promise that to conservative (if not fundamental) Pentecostal church-goers, this was quite a religio-social experiment! Imagine it, if you can: a group of adult lay members, without any formal biblical training, gathering to be introduced to and led through the two creation accounts, ancient Near Eastern comparative literature, literary and narrative analyses, the scientific ramifications of a literal global flood, etc.

    Without going into unending details, I will say that the response was surprisingly positive. True, while several students dropped out, they did so rather early in the semester, leaving the remaining students and I to proceed at our own pace through the material. Sixteen weeks later, the remaining students told me that they felt more confident than ever in their faith. The compartmentalization they had built around their faith they felt was no longer necessary. Several of them even told me that they felt more comfortable talking about God with their unchuched coworkers; everything from creation to the fall of humanity, from population growth to the Noah’s ark.

    Regettably, the church started having political problems (in no way related to my course) soon afterwards, so I wasn’t able to teach another course like it. But I do hope that someday I’ll have another such experience, for it was the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had in a church setting.

    All that to say that it is possible to bring academia to the church setting; it just takes trust, courage, patience, and a lot of time. :)

    Jason said:
    August 3, 2009 at 12:22 am

    John: Sorry if I take up too much real estate commenting!

    Jae: Your cynicism, unfortunately, is grounded in reality. Don’t lost hope, though! Where there an assembly of believers, there just has to be some there who REALLY want to learn more about their Bibles!

    R “E” G: Yes, that sounds like it could have been a mess, but glad it went well.

    John Anderson responded:
    August 3, 2009 at 6:37 am

    Rob: You touch on something that wasn’t even on my mind when I wrote this post: for whom do we blog? Blogging no doubt can serve such a function as well (and perhaps, if a biblical scholar belongs to a community of faith, that blog could be advertised for congregants to read).

    Jason: Your words are motivating. I recognize not all congregations would necessarily be interested in having a biblical scholar teach a 3 week or more informal class on a given topic; such could lead to difficulties (just look at the debacle with James McGrath a while back) for the pastor as well. Thus I would in no way make this teaching mandatory for congregants. Rather, if it is in a smaller, more personal setting, and they have come of their own volition, then, and only then, do I believe the most honest answers and interaction will emerge.

    Roy: You describe exactly the type of experience I am after. I’m even interested in working slowly through some Hebrew and Greek from week to week, for those who want to dabble. There are endless possibilities . . . . but my view on the whole matter, as your experience seems to highlight, is that I am not after some cookie-cutter course that becomes a glorified sunday school; I think something that presses them, makes them think, and even question perhaps, is the most enriching.

    Jason: No harm. Real estate is free around here, mein Freund!

    Jill said:
    August 3, 2009 at 8:30 am

    One could also view one’s work as in service to the academy. If viewed as a humanities discipline, one is credentialed (sp) as a biblical scholar by the academy, not by a faith community, although one can have a role including an ordained one in a faith community. I wonder if folks in other fields of the humanities (e.g. literature, philosophy, classics, etc.) feel this need to somwhow justify their work by moving it outside the academy.

    John Anderson responded:
    August 3, 2009 at 8:58 am

    Jill: Let me clarify a bit. I do not wish to imply that service to one necessarily excludes service to the other. Nor do I intend, as I say above, that scholarship is solely for the church, or even that it should be governed by the church. Hardly. Quite the opposite. And this is part of why I think it so vital that we take an active role in communities of faith to which we belong . . . .

    Indeed, I very much think biblical scholarship, mine included, is done in service to the academy. But the academy can be of service to communities of faith as well. That’s my basic point.

    Michael said:
    August 3, 2009 at 9:19 am

    John: Great post. I am in so much agreement that I’m going to teach a class on the historical Jesus (critical issues and all at my church this fall!) Okay, I was already going to do that, but still.

    On the other hand, if I may demure. You mention toward the the end that scholarship has little value if it does not in some way (whether implicitly or explicitly) impact the life of faith. I know what you are getting at, but isn’t the pursuit of knowledge a worthy endeavor whether or not anyone ever sees the results of it.

    I’m in a bit of a hurry, so I may have missed construed what you said in the post or the comments. I do apologize if I have. Otherwise, you best deal with my comment! ha! :)

    ben said:
    August 3, 2009 at 11:41 am

    There’s a story about a new Sunday School curricula being written that incorporated (or at least introduced) many critical views of the Bible (e.g., some JEDP, multiple Isaiah’s, etc.). When it was introduced to one of its first churchs it caused quite a stir. Several elders were extremely troubled by this “new” view of the Bible. Then, a retired pastor spoke up and informed the elders that they didn’t need to worry about this critical stuff, they had had all that in seminary 50 years ago. To which the elder replied, “Then why the hell didn’t you tell us!?!?”

    Why indeed.

    John Anderson responded:
    August 3, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Michael: Good stuff. And yes, there is some value in the pursuit itself. Much of what attracts me to this field of inquiry is the perpetual nature of the questions. And as I say, I think the church and academia often are asking quite different questions. This is just a feasible way to get those questions into the church in a cogent, competent way.

    Ben: Wonderful story! Thanks.

    Jason said:
    August 3, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    John: I think, too, that for most congregations, it is best to initiate church folk into a broader range of biblical study in a smaller setting, especially when you deal with issues that are sometimes seen as threatening to faith.

    Ben: A few years ago, in our discipleship study in 1 Corinthians, I mentioned the fact that some scholars believe 1 Cor. 14:34-35 to be an interpolation. Well, that was not well received and was summarily dismissed. For the sake of unity, I did not push the discussion over a minor point in the text.

    Bryan Bibb said:
    August 5, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Great post, John. I’m a little late the party, alas.

    I also teach an adult Sunday School class, and am an elder in my church. Something I have thought seriously about is whether someone like me (a trained theological educator but not a pastor) should also be ordained. I’m seriously considering it because it would be a clear marker of how I understand my own calling/vocation within the church and within academia. It’s a complicated and very personal issue, however, and each person must find their own place in the church/academy spectrum.

    That said, faithful reading of the Bible in church and academic reading of the Bible are two separate discourses, and are not by definition bound by the norms of each other. Lord, we can’t agree on reading norms even within the church or within academia!

    I see the interaction as taking place within the work and teaching of individual scholars and pastors. Some might draw on archaeology to help them understand/explain Joshua just as someone else might draw on contemporary lament poetry to talk about Canaanite genocide. Either of these could take place within a church or an academic context, or in some transitional place in between.

    David Melvin said:
    August 17, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    As I have told you before, I share your conviction that we should seek to bridge the gap between academy and church (though, as you say, without sacrificing academic integrity). Something similar which I have recently considered is whether we as scholars have a duty to address some of the blatant misinformation that is floating around out there at the popular level. A good example is the “Obama Antichrist” video that I wrote against on my blog recently. The internet is, of course, just saturated with non-sense like this, and to debunk all of it would be a colossal waste of time, but some material of an equally ridiculous nature makes it onto cable TV as well (think of anything done by Simcha Jacobovici [aka "the Naked Archaeologist" {who is, by the way, neither naked nor an archaeologist}]).

    On the one hand, should scholars justify things like these with responses? After all, no scholar takes them seriously, and they cater only to an audience which is generally ignorant of real biblical scholarship. On the other hand, if we have a duty not only to the scholarly community but to the church/synagogue and even to the public in general, don’t we also have a responsibility to call out psuedo-scholars and quacks? I would say yes. I do not want to be a scholar who lives in an ivory tower and only dialogues will other scholars. I think the least we can do is to help non-scholars who are interested in the Bible sort out real scholarship from garbage, even if they don’t always like hearing what we have to say. After all, most (though not all) of us who have gone into this business started out in a faith community.

    John Anderson responded:
    August 17, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Well said, David. Thank you for this thoughtful response. I cannot find much in it with which I disagree! Now the only difficulty is finding the medium to be able to ‘debunk’ such foolish claims. I always think of around the holidays when the History Channel will show specials on the life of Jesus for a month straight. Usually the Jesus Seminar folk are well-represented on these programs. Nothing against them and their colored balls of confidence, but they hardly speak for the majority.

    If only we could get TV deals!

      David Melvin said:
      August 17, 2009 at 8:27 pm

      Well, if you can’t find anything to disagree with, I’ll take that as a sign that it was well-stated!

    Jim said:
    August 18, 2009 at 10:34 am

    ‘priviledge’?

    Jason said:
    August 18, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    John: I have found the History Channel (at least in years past) to be fair in representing both sides to an argument, though I don’t see as many high-profile biblical/religious scholars as I used to. The worst offender has to be National Geographic. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen them handle bible-related issues fairly. Good thing we have TBN and the like to keep us straight! :-) (Yes, I am joking!)

    [...] Now take the idea of “literate public” and think of it in terms of the church, and you see the pickle we’re in.  Much of the bad theology and uninformed practice found in the church has been made possible by the widening gulf between the people who believe the Bible and the people who study it seriously.  Writing for the church is not all that biblical scholars do, but it is certainly important. [...]

    For Whom Do We Blog? « כל־האדם said:
    September 12, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    [...] 2009 John Anderson posed a very important question back in August. “As biblical scholars, for whom do we write?” This was a very good question, as was the discussion it sparked. I would like to pose what [...]

    [...] scholarship–here, theology–should have some relevance and import for the church (see HERE and HERE).  I disagree with Waltke, however, because I see this as exactly what Brueggemann is [...]

    Eda Uca-Dorn said:
    November 28, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    John-

    I am taking my first class on the Hebrew Bible and in my final paper, I would like to include precisely the questions you raised here- What is the audience, purpose of Biblical scholarship and what should we say about the divide between ancient and modern Biblical interpretation? Would you ever be able to suggest a published article or book on the issue? (I find your blog illuminating but I can’t use blog articles as sources;))

    ANY response would be so greatly appreciated!!!

    Peace,
    Eda

    John Anderson responded:
    November 30, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Eda:

    Unfortunately nothing comes to mind immediately on this topic. I am certain, however, that there is much out there on it. Perhaps another reader will be able to be more helpful than I?

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