For Whom Do We Write (II): A Rejoinder to Dr. Jim Linville

Recently on Jim Linville’s ever-entertaining blog, he has interacted with my post “For Whom Do We Write? On Biblical Scholars and the Church.”  Needless to say, I strongly feel he has either misunderstood, or misrepresented, my position (and those who know me well can attest to this, if my own words are deemed unconvincing for some reason).  My original post has been the subject of some debate and misunderstanding; I am hopeful this will serve to clarify some matters.

Dr. Linville says the following:

Anderson, writing from a confessional perspective to a religious audience, does not address secular biblical scholars but discusses biblical scholarship in its relationship with the church. He writes against an elitism in theologically centered biblical research.

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.   …    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? 

For Anderson, academic biblical studies is at least in part an educational instrument of the church and synagogue. He is clearly not speaking for me. As an atheist, I recognize no particular obligation to teach “any faith community” anything. That is what pastors, rabbis, theologians and popes are for. It is hard to gauge how Anderson views academic biblical studies in its relation to secular research into human societies (including religious studies).

He seems to think of it as a confessional enterprise but one that operates on a very exclusive educational and intellectual level. Thus, he does not explore the issue of legitimacy that confessional approaches to the Bible face from the wider secular religious studies guild. As noted already, Avalos and Noll would raise these issues sharply while it seems that Davies would prefer to minimize their divisive impact. As noted by Davies, however, the secular biblical academic faces the dilemma that the audience that cares most about the Bible are believers. Davies, however, does not really develop his thoughts about the minority audience, i.e., other scholars engaged in wider religious studies. 

I would argue that secular biblical scholarship would do well to accept the loss of Anderson’s “faithful” audience if the results of secular research strains the relationship with the church or synagogue too far. Non religious scholars should do more to recognize their intellectual home in wider secular researches into human history, culture and religion. This would involve championing comparative studies and the methodological discussions that this would require. It would also mean becoming familiar with research into other religious traditions from around the world and encouraging students to look beyond the ancient near east or the theological heritage of the west when planning their degree programs. It would also require helping students and scholars in other disciplines, better identify sectarian influence in biblical studies. There is a reciprocal relationship that needs to be more strongly developed. Studies of ancient Israelite and near eastern religion can be assisted by familiarity with research into the wider phenomenon of religiosity. Likewise, biblical scholars should not hide their lights under a bushel, nor should they be content to let it shine from a steeple. It should be seen by other religious studies scholars as offering a valuable and academically sound illumination on the complexities of religion. 

I responded in the comments as follows:

Jim, thanks for interacting with my post. That said, I am surprised by how far from the truth you are in your description of my take on this matter. I might suggest reading elsewhere on my blog, or checking out my current article; I hardly think I’m doing cookie-cutter biblical scholarship, nor am I doing cookie-cutter theology.

Your first paragraph describing my post is a huge overstatement. First, if you read my work you will know the confessional perspective is by no means at the fore nor seminal for my interpretive work. I don’t wish to hint that I have no biases in reading of texts–we all do–but these are hardly them. Your description states the polar opposite of what I intend to say in the piece you quote at length.

You say I argue that “biblical scholarship needs to be reconciled with the needs of the church.” Absolutely not. The block quotation you provide should clarify this; scholarship written that is governed a priori by the norms and doctrines of the church is irresponsible, in a word. That’s not what I’m after. It appears to be a matter of trajectory. The church (or synagogue, or what have you) is not ‘the pope’ for my scholarship. Rather, my scholarship, I hope, will inform these communities of faith in meaningful and at times troubling ways. I trust you have read Brueggemann, Jim. Think of my scholarship in a vein similar to his massive OT theology; unsettling, yet biblical. Haunting, yet ignored. I see my role as keeping the church, synagogue, etc . . . . even the atheist, as you identify yourself . . . . honest in its engagement with the text and what the text says about God. There are hairy moments. And as I seem to have been saying a lot recently, God, Jesus, and the Cross should not be whitewashed.

You also say I argue against elitism. Well, yes and no. I’m unsure “elite” is the best word here, but I have been privvy to some very poor exegesis on my tv on Sunday mornings and elsewhere. As a biblical scholar, I am formally trained and thus have a higher competence than others who are not in these matters. There is thus a sense of responsibility that seeks to insure others are ‘getting it.’

You write that for me “biblical scholarship needs to be reconciled with the needs of the church.” Again, hardly. The block quotation you cite should clarify that in its first sentence.

Put simply, what I was trying to communicate is a call to the church, synagogue, etc. to bear in mind the weight of the academic pursuits biblical scholars undertake. It is a call (bad word choice, eh?) to communities of faith to be responsible, realistic, and honest in their engagement with the text. I don’t hear a lot of sermons on Job. I don’t see a lot of people claiming God is complicit in deception, like I do. I do, though, see a lot of whitewashed images of God, Jesus, and the cross. And while I do hope tremendously that my scholarship informs other academics and advances the field in meaningful ways, I also hope it clarifies for others another characterization of God that is quite biblical. The call is to the church to take these images and handle them responsibly, not to the scholar to write “in service” to the church where “in service” actually means “in servitude to.” That’s hardly me. Servitude to the church. No, not me. Service to academia and communities of faith. Yep. Sounds like me. And if one or the other . . . . or both . . . . of those groups dismisses what I say, then they do. All I can do is offer the voice.

I hope this clarifies my view a bit.  Thoughts?

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11 thoughts on “For Whom Do We Write (II): A Rejoinder to Dr. Jim Linville

    • John Anderson says:

      Yes, Rob. You got it!

      I just hope such “mis______” are not frequent. If I ever seek to do anything in my work, giving a fair and honest representation of another’s position is at the top of the list.

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    You write: “I don’t see a lot of people claiming God is complicit in deception, like I do.”

    Comments are hardly the place for taking this up – in fact I did a triple take on the post – wondering if in this medium, it would be possible to read and do the subject justice.

    I have only read a few books on Job – but the authors hardly touch theology in them. They are much more concerned with ‘meaning’, whatever that is, and they all with few exceptions rewrite the text to suit their own bias.

    Reading your post – a good summary IMO – made me think that the scriptures are simply the product of human invention (and this I believe). Does that mean I have no faith? Can I escape my evangelical, fundamentalist, anglo-catholic charismatic experience? Like any individual, I am a storm-tossed lost-at-sea thirsty creature. So for me the 100% human tradition can support such a one. Job in particular postulates what must be in God for us to live. Even Elihu (34:10) anticipates the curse on God for wickedness.

    In this I see in you one who believes – and in the academic who does not believe, I see one who believes also. The real question is whether our words will make a difference.

  2. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    One of the greatest chinks in the academic endeavor, in my humble opinion, is the assumption of pure communication via any given media, whether oral, written, or visual. Regardless of hermeneutical acumen, the greatest of minds can still “mis____.” Good response, though, John: honest, generous, and yet still unwavering. 🙂

  3. John Anderson says:

    Bob: Thanks for your reflections. I do think there is a certain hair-trigger reaction many have, saying “if you don’t ascribe to x,y,z then you don’t believe at all.” I very much appreciate your kind words, also, concerning what you hear in what I’m saying.

    Michael: Thanks. Personally, I also don’t think my initial post was all that unclear, but it was received in a troubling way here, so I wanted to clarify. Danke.

    Roy: How true! And thank you for your kind words. I also hope your family members are all on the mend!

  4. anummabrooke says:

    Just a +1 on Roy’s point. If I had a nickel for every time that my writing or speech was misunderstood, or that I misunderstood someone else, I could retire happily as a gentleman scholar and golfer. Just part of the process.

    Communication hard.

  5. mike f says:

    i think you answered the criticism about as well as possible. kudos for clarifying, showing respect, & standing firm in one swoop. i remember reading the original post & pretty much hearing it the way you’ve clarified above. btw, check out my most recent post on OT intros if you have time

  6. John Anderson says:

    Brooke: If only “misunderstanding” was a career option!

    Mike: Thank you for your kind words. I am pleased many have found my response to be not only clarifying but also respectful (this being important after I realized the other day I posted that reply to Dr. Linville at about 1am!!).

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