The Sackgasse: West, Avalos, and Biblical Studies
Recently Jim West wrote an essay for The Bible and Interpretation titled The Sackgasse of A-theistic Biblical Studies. There have been more than a few comments at the site hosting the essay, and various responses around the internet. Tim has some good thoughts (here), as does Mike (here, here).
Instead of writing an essay with my connected thoughts I’m going to offer some random stream of consciousness unconnected thoughts.It’s Saturday morning and a blog post; it’s the best I can do!
My points relate more to the approach of the secular academy.
1) Mark Twain once opined, “All generalizations are false, including this one.” While I might not go that far, in this discussion the usefulness of generalizations can be seen in that Avalos characterizes the way biblical studies is approached as too theist, and West characterizes it as too atheist. That’s a red-flag for me.
2) No one scholar should be able to declare an end to anything for everyone else in their particular field… except for declaring an end to declaring ends!
3) Generalizing atheists as “angry” in general, and those involved in biblical studies in particular, is unfair rhetoric.
4) Each scholar should be judged on his or her merits, and their work peer-reviewed, on a case-by-case basis. We all grow and learn, and we do some work better and some poorer. I may have a philosophical influence that I am unaware of and it may effect my work in a tendentious manner, but once the error is pointed out I may be better at my work and not make the same mistake. Grouping scholars as religionists or atheists is, in my opinion, fruitless.
5) Biblical Studies is a useless and confusing term. The “meaning” of texts is theology. We should stop calling biblical studies and theology the same thing.
6) In the comments to the essay Philip Davies wrote, “Biblical Studies is humanistic.” I couldn’t agree more. What’s more I think biblical studies should be part of the historical departments. In this sense explaining what the text “means for us today” is irrelevant and improper. This applies to Christians, Atheist, Feminists, and Gnostics. An approach to biblical studies that tendentiously bears an atheist agenda so that it can make a point to modern readers is just as unacceptable as a supposedly “historical” study that endeavors to “defend the faith”. They are different sides to the same coin. Opposites on a pendulum.
7) Any level of Fideism should always be frowned upon in an academic setting.
8 ) Ancient texts are never the sole intellectual property of one group or faith practice.
Obviously, I seek to study, read, and understand these texts in a University setting primarily when I use the term “biblical studies”. I believe that in academic studies the structure and rules of the humanities should be the norm. In a Seminary or community of faith a different rule can be the norm. But they are different things.
This then means recognizing the context that any text is being studied. Forcing a single agenda across all contexts is inappropriate at best. I would suggest against preaching the Documentary Hypothesis or multiple authors for Isaiah in a Sunday morning sermon, and equally, I would strongly suggest against explaining what 2 Chronicles “really means for our lives today” in your next SBL session.
It’s like a hammer: one side is used for hammering nails and the other for taking them out. Same tool, different job. Equally, we should not confuse that an ancient text can on the one side be used primarily and only for historical studies, while at the same time in another setting, be used as normative in faith communities. Same tool; different jobs.