I recently had a long discussion with a friend about Christian scholarship. The conversation revolved around the idea that many modern Biblical scholars will tell you that the Bible isn’t really as great as Christians believe it to be. Arguments range from “the Gospels weren’t written until 80 years after Christ’s death and therefore couldn’t have been written by the apostles” to “Biblical accounts conflict with historical accounts, meaning the Bible cannot be accurate” to “The account of Jesus in the Gospel of John is irreconcilable with the accounts in the synoptic gospels…meaning that the Bible is contradictory, flawed, and most definitely not divinely inspired.” In the aftermath of this conversation, I did a lot of thinking on whether there is a bias by-and-large amongst Biblical scholars and critics in the present day. However, this thought process ran against one of my core life rules…which is “never to assume another person’s motivations.” In my experience, trying to figure out why someone did something is nearly impossible without knowing that person’s history. So, I stopped that thought process and let it rest for a while.
This week, I had a conversation with a faculty member at the college I work for about the idea of beginning a Ph D program. During our conversation, I told him of how I had considered seminary for much of my life, but decided during my undergraduate that it wasn’t the path I wanted to take. This led to some discussion about the current state of Christian scholarship, and my motives for changing my mind about parish ministry. During the conversation, he made an interesting statement that I wanted to write down for future consideration. However, given the group of friends that I have, I thought some of you might have some good input on it as well.
As we were talking, the idea emerged that a core requirement for attaining a doctorate and becoming a legitimate scholar in our western system is to “contribute to the body of knowledge” in a particular field. However, not all contributions are viewed as equal in the field of scholarship. In fact, with its structure of peer-reviewed journals, fellowships, endowed chairs, prizes, tenure-tracks, and politics throughout, scholarship in the present day is perhaps one of the least egalitarian of all professions. The concept of “contributing to the body of knowledge” in a field inherently assumes that one must produce “new” information. While anyone who writes a decent dissertation and passes all their tests can get a Ph D, the most successful and influential scholars seem to be those who present information that is not only “new”…but is also compelling in some other way. In the physical sciences, this often takes the form of a new technological development. In math and economics, it is often a new model for understanding why a certain phenomenon takes place. In business, it could be a new means of understanding how incentives effect decision-making. However, things get a little hazy when one looks to the humanities.
In mathematics, a scholar who finds a new means of proving an existing theorem that has never been considered before is praised, lauded, and might get an award. However, the English scholar who develops “A Fresh Look at Hemmingway’s Contribution to American Literature” doesn’t get nearly as much credit. Even so, if one looks through a list of dissertation titles from recent recipients of Ph D’s in History or English from a major university, it’s almost laughable how many have similar themes. From “A New Perspective on How the Vietnam War Influenced American Educational Systems” to “Further Essays on Chaucer,” re-evaluating existing works seems to be the bulwark of historical and hermeneutics (textual interpretation) research today. This actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Take history, for example. Though history is happening all the time…current events usually fall into the realm of other disciplines. Political scientists and policy analysts study current political developments, geographers and and geologists study how the earth is changing, military scientists study wars, cultural anthropologists and sociologists study human cultures. History gets the short end of the stick, only getting to look at these things after everyone else is done with them. The same is true of English. Authors may become celebrities, and poets may be revered, but the English scholar is stuck studying what other people write and seeking new interpretations of that writing. Given that most every significant work has been reviewed, analyzed, chewed up, and spit out by literary critics and middle schoolers doing book reports alike, there’s not much left for legitimate scholars except to try to build entirely new perspectives on existing works.
Unlike the sciences, there’s little room for empirical research in english or history. Last I looked, it’s tough to do a regression analysis on the Grapes of Wrath or The Development of the US Space Program. Scholars are stuck simply attempting to devise new interpretations and perspectives on past events and works. I feel that up-and-coming Biblical and Christian scholars are forced into a similar mold as the historians and english scholars of the world. In essence, Biblical and Christian scholars are taking a source text and some historical events and trying to correctly analyze and interpret them. As these events and the text of Scripture are some of the most analyzed in history, new scholars could be forced to approach Scripture and Christian history with a lens of seeking “a new perspective” in order to make themselves known. No one is going to get a promotion or an award for a paper titled “Further Evidence that the Apostle John Actually Wrote the Gospel According to John” when it’s put up against “The Biblical Lie…Is Johannine Literature Actually Johannine After All?” I mean, which of those would you want to read…the one that simply tells you what you’ve heard for the entirety of your life, or the more provocative, extremely compelling “new take” that could debunk the Bible? When was the last time you saw a CNN article with the title “New Research Provides Additional Proof that Solomon Wrote Ecclesiastes?”
Through no fault of their own, modern scholars of Christianity and hermeneutics could be forced to find “new interpretations” or “fresh ideas” that are often counter to Christian orthodoxy and historical hermeneutics simply to have successful careers. If this were true, over time, the body of literature for Christian history and Scriptural hermeneutics would become more and more saturated with ideas that diverge from the traditional. I know this sounds like a conspiracy theory, but that’s not what I’m going for. I’m just trying to understand why it seems that every piece of “legitimate scholarship” I see that relates to Scripture or Christian history seems to be contrary to historical interpretations and orthodoxy. It’s rare that I run into a scholar saying “historical interpretations are right, and here’s why.” This explanation seems to make a lot of sense to me, given my understanding of the current state of western scholarship.
So, thoughts…feedback…scathing critiques? Thanks for reading!