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