A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Commenting on the Comments

My post on Reading Novels, Reading the Bible was picked up by Tim Bulkeley in his SansBlogue, which was picked up by Jim West in his blog, which was then commented on by various readers. That string leads me to clarify my point and restate my quest.

Some of the comments in Jim’s blog suggested that I was unfairly equating “minimalist” biblical scholars with fundamentalists.  “Minimalist” is a label thrown at scholars who approach biblical presentations of history not as raw fact but as carefully -constructed portraits of the past.  Critics claim that such scholars are hell-bent on challenging the truth of the Bible.  On the contrary, they (and I) understand their work as appropriately challenging those who treat the Bible as objective information, as well as endeavoring to understand why biblical writers described the past in the way they did.

In my blog post, I didn’t use the word “minimalist,” since I don’t find it a helpful or accurate label.  But more importantly, these aren’t really the folks I was talking about.  I was trying to describe the genre of “biblical  exposé” that dominates one segment of the popular religious publishing market–books that attempt to sensationalize archaeological and historical findings for the sake of showing the Bible’s inrelevancy to the thinking person.  Bart Ehrman, a friend to whom I’ve said this in person, is someone I’d put in this camp.  Bart’s popular books attempt to show that the Bible is just plain wrong about a lot of things, and he concludes that people shouldn’t put so much stock in it.  His God’s Problem does that pretty directly (he mentions me in the book’s Acknowledgements, even though I told him that it doesn’t approach texts with enough nuance). Also in the exposé genre,  I’d also put the very popular books that make all kinds of claims about how the church has suppressed the truth about Mary Magdalene in order to subordinate women.

I don’t have any problem with exposés, as long as the information’s accurate.  And I have no qualms about challenging any institution or any person who sets out to deceive others for their own gain.  I’m not upset when people challenge the church; I do it myself.  I also find interesting and important the insights of historical and archaeological work.  My own work is informed by what it reveals about the political realities of the ancient Mediterranean.  Heck, my Ph.D. is in the history and archaeology of the Hebrew Bible.

My post was more of a lament that there’s little popular market for a different kind of approach to the Bible.  It’s hard to see in the public forum a space for open-ended conversation about how biblical constructions of reality resonate and don’t resonate with readers’ own experiences of individual and corporate existence. How does reading these texts provide an opportunity to talk about life?

By saying that, I don’t assume that there is one common universal human experience.  Quite the contrary. The conversation I want to have is one informed by ideological critique–by the consideration of the ways in which power functions along the lines of class, race, and gender and multiple other ways.  That’s the only kind of theological conversation I’m interested in, too: ones that are informed by ideological sensitivities.  I tried to model this approach in Challenging Prophetic Metaphor:  Theology and Ideology in the Prophets (WJK, 2008). I don’t claim to have done it adequately, much less perfectly, but I did ask what theological reflection might look like when it embraces ideological perspectives instead of relegating them to footnotes.

I’m no enemy of ideological critique.  I’m not trying to defend the Bible against detractors. If I had to accept either the label of maximalist or minimalist, I’d be a minimalist.

What I’m looking for is public discourse about the Bible that isn’t drippingly-pious or arrogantly dismissive.  As the original post explained,  I want to find public discussions of these texts that treat them as least as seriously as literature as some of us treat novels.  I don’t even care if the conversation is religious or not.  I just want it to be human.


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