Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Beware of Bible Scholars Selling Books (Dialogue Column 3.24.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

I recently started subscribing to The Atlantic Monthly, and I’ve enjoyed the articles, commentary and reviews—largely on topics I know only a little about. In this month’s issue, however, there is an article on a subject I know quite a bit about—early Christianity. The article is by Robert Wright, a fellow at a Washington, D.C. think tank who writes about a lot of subjects, including religion. He argues that early Christianity, especially the kind practiced by Paul represented a nascent form of globalization, complete with franchises (the churches Paul established).

Setting aside the anachronistic idea of reading today’s globalization into the first century Roman Empire, Wright presents some decent material about Paul’s work. Unfortunately, he does so as a part of his larger thesis which includes questionable interpretations of the Gospels and what amounts to a lame dismissal of the Hebrew Scriptures. Wright represents a problem all too common in our religious illiterate media culture—namely, people that like to read scholarship about the Bible rather than actually reading the Bible itself. Just as bad as the “experts” you find in the so-called “Christian media” who opine about the scriptures without ever having read any decent scholarship of it are the “experts” on the Bible you find appearing in “secular media” going on about the latest in Biblical scholarship who have never read the Bible.

Wright—and many other writers before him—find in Paul, a cosmopolitan thinker who moved Christianity beyond the nationalist confines of Jesus and the Jews. He ignores the concerns of Jesus for Gentiles as depicted in the Gospels and God’s concern for all nations as expressed in the Hebrew Bible. He considers Mark’s Gospel to be the most historical, because it is the earliest—a questionable position since just because something was written first doesn’t mean it is more historically reliable. He also ignores the rich themes of God’s love for all nations as found throughout the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophets. Any reasonable rabbi today would reject the idea that the God of what we call the Old Testament is only a wrathful, angry deity, yet Wright—and so many others, do just that and therefore dismiss the majority of what Christians consider to be scripture.

I’ve grown used to flawed pieces of “scholarship” like Wright’s (did I mention he has a book to sell on this subject?), although once I loved these revisionist perspectives. As a religion major in college and as a seminary student, I was taught to love and even revere biblical scholarship. I came out of a tradition that disregarded the role of the mind in the life of faith and that had a deep-seated suspicion of all things intellectual, so discovering what’s called the “Historical-Critical Method” was a wonderful release. I became great at reading commentaries, articles and monographs, but it wasn’t until I went to do doctoral work in the New Testament that I had professors who taught me to question the presuppositions and arguments of scholars. Again and again, they forced me to actually read the Biblical text. This was by no means some sort of fundamentalist literalism, but rather just plain learning to read primary rather than secondary sources. Before you read what scholars say about the Bible, you might want to actually read the Bible yourself.

I began to learn that just like fundamentalists; scholars could be completely unaware of their own philosophical presuppositions about modernity, history, religion and ethics. More often than not, scholars end up where they started out from. Like the rest of us, they find a God, a Jesus or a Paul that matches what they wanted to find in the first place. All of us suffer from this same dilemma, but not all of us are selling books claiming to be the authoritative word on what Christianity REALLY was and should be. A walk through Borders will reveal a table near the religion section containing all sorts of books by leading “experts” who claim to know what Jesus really did or said. These are the same “experts” that make it onto NPR and other showcases for peddling a literary product. It might make for interesting cocktail party discussions, but just because a publisher promotes a book well doesn’t mean a given writer’s argument is worthwhile or even well-considered.

I still love to read good scholarship about the Bible, but I make sure that I actually have read enough of the biblical text to have my own opinion first. I’m willing to change my mind on a particular passage of scripture, but how can that happen, if I never have my own thoughts in the first place. The next time you hear a religious scholar on the radio or see an article by one in a magazine talking about what REALLY happened in the beginnings of Christianity, take a look for yourself about the scriptures they discuss. You may discover that the so-called scholar has never even read for himself the texts he claims to know so much about.

Grace and Peace,


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