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Review: The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness

April 10, 2009

To begin with this book is incorrectly titled. It’s not about “academic” faithfulness, but rather religious faithfulness taken into the academy and class assignments. Properly titled it should be “The Idea of Christian Faithfulness in a University Setting.” Also, it’s really not that outrageous of an idea: I know a lot of people who do it all of the time, but enough semantics about the title.

9781587432101lThe problem the authors of this book attempt to deal with is being a Christian first and foremost in a University setting. My opinion in a nutshell: the book is not good or very helpful as the authors do very little to advance the conversation between faith and learning and the tensions that can exist in entering a University environment.

Let me give you a few examples. First, what the authors really, really needed to do was have a theologian or biblical scholar give this book a little edit because whatever their skills may be in other disciplines (the one author is a PhD in sociology at BU) there are moments in this book where they are hacks when it comes to the Bible and theology. For example, in chapter two their primary typological argument is from the book of Daniel, and how Nebuchadnezzar had Daniel thrown in the pit of lions; however, to anyone that actually knows these stories they also know at this point in the narrative Nebby is gone and Darius is the king.

Now this may seem a small thing, but if you are going to publish a book that proposes some sort of “biblical principle” from this story shouldn’t you be able to at least get the names right? It should probably come as no surprise that if something this simple was missed then more complex elements of the narrative evade these authors as well.

I find this significant because the whole purpose of the Daniel stories in this book is to demonstrate how the Jews stayed faithful under fire and were not enslaved by Babylonian culture. However, anyone that has studied the Babylonian exile knows that one of the most significant elements of that event for Biblical Studies is  the many ways the Jews were changed in religion and worldview when they finally went back to Yehud.

What is disappointing is that if the authors had actually investigated this instead of imposing a tendentious theological agenda onto the text it would have worked very well as a bridge to the discussion in chapters 3 and 7. But the way they read (the “right” “Christian” and “biblical” way) the Bible is a hindrance to any sort of rigorous academic investigation of biblical studies which is quite ironic in a book about academic faithfulness.

Secondly, you can pretty safely assume you are dealing with some theological turd when you read a sentence like this: “Eventually good students of the Bible read the Bible as a story (nonfiction)” p 58. Notice that adjective in there? “Good” students of the Bible read it as a story. There are pages of comments I could make to the problems in that fallacious statement. One of the authors also claims he has learned to interpret the Bible in context but that claim is demonstrably false as evidenced by some of the ham-fisted abuse of the texts in this small book.

Basically, if I was to give an analogy to the “biblical” advice in this book: a bank teller asks you how she can be a better Christian at her job and you respond, “When people come into the bank don’t do your transaction with them, because you can’t serve God and Mammon, but witness to them about Jesus instead, because that’s what good Christians do and if you don’t you’re  a bad Christian.” At its core the theological outlook in this book is that rudimentary which is hardly any sort of answer to the complicated questions it attempts to resolve.

The book gets a little better at the end when there is some good advice about listening, probing, and asking good questions, but in my discipline anyways, that is a moot point once you have adopted the theological presupposition that “good” students of the Bible read it as a story and that needs to be imposed on all of your assignments.  There is also some decent advice in the last chapter for the students that read this book about keeping their eyes on the assignments given, and how thinking Christianly does not give them a right to wander away from a topic. However, my guess would be that the hundred and twenty pages before that advice may prod their behaviour in a different direction, i.e., forcing some agenda when it may be inappropriate.

I would strongly discourage anyone from using this in a Religion and Theology department or a biblical studies department. Teaching first year students to put a deductive shield around the biblical text and identifying that as “good” Christianity, and then pretending there are no worldview or ideological glasses which colour that reading is truncated at best and severely damaging at worst. Pretending that reading the Bible as a story insulates someone from both modernity and postmodernity (about as likely as a fish not swimming in water) is probably one of the most unproductive things I can think of in the academy, and very far from “academic” faithfulness. The Bible is more than the mere reduction of story offered by the authors. It can be a theological element, but there is more. Much more.

Finally, I would like to make a distinction: The topic of this book and the problems that led to its authorship are very real and very important. I wouldn’t want anyone to be under the impression that I think Christians in universities do not face these problems and do not need to pursue solutions that are intellectually satisfying and spiritually healthy. Especially in more secular universities. However, just because these are real and important topics that true fact doesn’t mean the solutions posited in this book are not incorrect or need much more nuance.

At the end of the day you have a campus pastor (read agenda) and a sociologist (read not his field) who attempt theological work and try to construct a metanarrative for the university student; however, while they may be wonderful people and awesome at their actual jobs, in my opinion, their theological and ideological arguments and conclusions in this book are most unsatisfactory.

For a much, much better treatment on the subject I would suggest The Passionate Intellect by Klassen and Zimmerman.

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