Biblical Scholarship In Public Discourse

If we dare to speak about a system that needs radical overhaul, it is likely to arouse the fear and hostility of those who fund our institutions far more than anything we may say about biblical interpretations or single issues in the culture wars. 

By Norman K. Gottwald
Pacific School of Religion
Berkeley, CA
December 2002

    Although my practice as a biblical scholar involved in public issues extends over nearly fifty years and although I have discussed aspects of this twin involvement in various contexts, this is the first occasion for me to reflect on the matter in a systematic manner. Four questions occur to me as central to the participation of biblical scholars and biblical scholarship in public discourse.

  • In what forums do biblical scholars enter public discourse?
  • When biblical scholars enter the public arena, with what issues have they been most concerned?
  • What has been the net effect of biblical scholars in the shaping of public philosophy and policy?
  • What special challenges and dilemmas do biblical scholars face when they enter or decline to enter public discourse?

How Biblical Scholars Participate in Public Discourse

    In the first instance, we do so in a manner that does not usually distinguish us from others engaged in the same activities. We vote, write to public officials and newspapers, sign petitions, participate in demonstrations, and join organizations to support political parties or to advance social and political causes. In these instances, we act as private citizens so that our happening to be biblical scholars is not highly germane to our activities, at least as far as it is evident to others.

    In a second sphere, we engage more or less directly with public issues in the performance of our duties as teachers and writers. I say “more or less” because there is a long-standing taboo against being “too political” in the classroom. This taboo has been especially strong in biblical studies. Historians of religion, theologians, and ethicists tend to be granted more disciplinary leeway to relate their subjects to contemporary life. This reluctance to be “political,” or even contemporary, in our academic work probably has much to do with the long struggle we have had to wage to gain general acceptance of the historical-critical insight that biblical cultures are markedly different from our own. We are justifiably wary of facile applications of the Bible to present life conditions. Moreover, our training as Biblicists has often not included enough of a perspective in the humanities and social sciences for us to feel confident about our views on complicated and disputed public issues.

    Nonetheless, like it or not, in recent decades we have been mercilessly prodded by methodological and hermeneutical shifts in biblical studies and by insurgent students and colleagues to realize that the biblical texts do “leak” into the stream of public discourse and that many of these “leakages” insistently focus on contentious issues within the various church bodies many of us serve, as well in the larger society. Even if we wish to avoid these discussions, we are increasingly confronted with pointed questions about how the Bible relates to issues of current concern. We are less and less able to control the topics and questions that we will be asked to comment upon in our classes and in our writings.

    A specialized aspect of our professional activity that brings us into public discourse is when we are asked to serve on commissions or task forces or to speak at conferences, treating topics of current notoriety. These extra-curricular invitations are often tendered by church bodies seeking to gather information and wisdom on perplexing issues and to encourage discussion among denominational members, although sometimes they are under academic or even government auspices. We are called upon to resource a spectrum of inquiries with our biblical expertise. Admittedly, on occasion we feel like “window dressing,” recruited to make an obligatory nod toward “the biblical view” on topics that have only the most tenuous connection with the Bible. Nonetheless, these assigned tasks sometimes lead us to ask fresh questions of biblical texts we thought we knew well and to ponder their implications for the issues at hand. A case in point is the Religion, Culture, and Family project underwritten by Lilly funds and directed by Don Browning of the University of Chicago Divinity School. This ongoing project has produced two splendid biblical volumes, Families in Ancient Israel, edited by Leo Perdue and Families in the New Testament World, edited by Carolyn Osiek and David Balch. The creation of these volumes with a distinctive focus, along with their likely dissemination well beyond biblical and theological circles, is hard to imagine in any other way than as products of a special assignment.

    The most visible participation of biblical scholars in public discourse occurs when we espouse social and political views and policies in our public appearances and media exposure that spreads beyond the classroom and academic publications. Often, these moments that give us a public sounding board have to do with interpretation of the Bible, where we are on familiar ground, but we may feel strongly enough and have sufficient opportunity to get into other issues, such as I began to do in the late fifties and early sixties as one of a small number of religious academics to advocate nuclear, biological, and chemical disarmament and later to oppose the Vietnam War from the start. At the moment, the public issues that seem to draw most attention by Biblicists are the hot topics in the culture wars, such as abortion and homosexuality. One perplexity about these public espousals is how much our positions actually draw on the Bible in the first place, and a second perplexity is whether, given the orientation of the media to sensationalism and sound-bites, how well our arguments are set forth. For example, I was involved as a biblical expert in a television series that still runs occasionally on the Arts and Entertainment channel, called “Mysteries of the Bible.” The young staff who interviewed me on film had aspirations to make it an in-depth ground-breaking series, but the final editing “chopped” and “interlaced” the several scholarly remarks into a mishmash of interpretations. In short, when we biblical scholars “go public,” we need to be prepared not simply for opposition but also for misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

Public Issues Addressed by Biblical Scholars

    What topics of public interest do we biblical scholars tend to get involved in? As for the agenda of public discourse, do we mainly respond to outside initiatives or do we propose topics of our own choosing, and if we do, are we heard? Also, to what extent do we feel obligated, stimulated, or rewarded by our involvements in public discourse? I will comment on four clusters of public issues: two that seem largely to comprise the preferred agenda of biblical scholars and two that receive far less attention from Biblicists.

    It appears that the most frequent public discourse engaging us as biblical scholars involves the “believability” of the Bible in one or another respect. One thinks of the stormy debate over the bearing of the Dead Sea Scrolls on Christian origins and of the furor created by the deliberations of the Jesus Seminar. In Hebrew Bible studies, a current debate rages between “minimalists” and “maximalists” over the historicity of biblical texts, focused most visibly of late on the historical or fictive figures of David and Solomon. These controversies are reported in popular media largely as a stark, simplistic face-off between utterly opposed views of the Bible: either it is factual reportage or deceitful fiction. The media presentations cater shamelessly to combative defenders and debunkers of the Bible with scarcely any attention to the complexity of the issues under debate. The biblical scholar who aspires to a nuanced clarification of the disputed issues may not easily find a forum that will maintain viewer or reader interest long enough for careful analysis to take effect. Even more regrettably, it appears that there is a measure of feedback from the simplistic public exposure of debated biblical issues such that the scholars with opposed views are further polarized when they hear what is said of them in the media.

    Other public discourse about the Bible is focused on the religious, cultural, and political implications of certain questionable ways of “applying” biblical texts to current affairs. Under the Reagan administration, there was an upsurge of interest in political readings of Daniel and Revelation that seemed to encourage belligerency and recklessness in U.S. foreign policy, even to provide ideological legitimation for unleashing nuclear war as a step in “God’s plan” for the end of the world. The enduring specter of dispensationalist views of the end-time gained new currency and has been given a further boost by turn-of-the-millennium speculations. Public radio and academic conferences addressed the chilling implications of this development, and a number of biblical scholars, including myself, wrote articles and books and gave lectures aimed at discrediting dispensationalist fantasies.

    As a further example of “what the Bible has to say about x, y, or z,” a decade or so ago a seminar at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, enlisting Jewish and Christian biblical scholars and secular writers, editors, and literary critics, embarked on a close reading of Genesis. This was picked up by Bill Moyers who developed a television series that spawned a number of books and raised significant questions about the dysfunctional patriarchal families as problematic models for contemporary families. As a member of the original seminar, I profited enormously from the range of shared insights that emerged. I was, however, rather disappointed by the way the television series shortchanged historical, literary, and redactional issues in shaping the theme of patriarchal family dynamics. At the same time, I can appreciate that those complex issues would have been more difficult to present entertainingly than stressing the undoubtedly relevant psychological and socioethical effects of the stories on ordinary readers.

    A second cluster of public issues that has long tempted biblical scholars to get involved has to do with gender roles and the social and ethical construction of the family; we currently refer to these as “culture wars.” A facet of these conflicts is the resurgence of creationism which attempts to derive humans, and often their fixed social roles, from a direct act of God. The “flashpoints” in this cluster of issues are currently abortion and homosexuality, but the issues around family and gender spread into a widening circle of public policies concerning the role and status of women, health care, childcare, social welfare, drugs, prison policies, gun control, and school funding and curriculum. In this area, we biblical scholars are not simply exegeting biblical texts. We are intervening to favor one or another hermeneutical option as to how the Bible impacts culture and how precisely any of its several culturally bound directives can be informative today and, in particular, whether they are valid and binding on the present. Much more than our biblical tools and methods are involved as emotional, socioeconomic, political, philosophical and religious factors come into play that have little or nothing to do with specific biblical texts.

    Two other clusters of public issues have been much less attractive to biblical scholars. One of these sets concerns the corporate greed that permeates our society and societies the world around so that we may appropriately speak of a renewed “robber baron” political economy even more sophisticated and all-encompassing than any of its capitalist predecessors. A related set of issues concerns American hegemony over the rest of the world. One does not hear much from biblical scholars about the anti-human effects of our skewed national priorities and of the hubris of our foreign policy in trying to micro-manage as much of the world as we can. There have been earlier periods in our history when corporate greed and American imperialism have been outstanding public issues addressed by biblical scholars oriented to the Social Gospel and to Liberation Theology. In the eighties and nineties, those issues subsided in the euphoria of capitalism’s triumph over communism and the sudden soaring of the stock market. Today, the unresolved inequities of capitalism emerge once again, and we have renewed domestic pressure for national health care, public control of deregulated utilities, and electoral reforms, as well as growing opposition to NAFTA and WTO and strong objections to our continuing sanctions on Iraq and Cuba, and, more recently, our military intervention in Colombia.

    It seems to me that three impediments stand out to explain this disproportion in the public issues we biblical scholars get involved in. One impediment is that we do not usually get involved until issues attain a very high public profile since, to be candid, we are not inclined to be “ahead of the curve” of public opinion on highly controversial matters. At the moment, the culture wars over gender, family, homosexuality, drugs, and guns have the highest public attention. Corporate greed and global imperialism and their systemic connections to the culture issues are only beginning to enter public consciousness. So, while we may be invited or encouraged to give our views on homosexuality or capital punishment, we are less likely to be asked what we think about repealing the estate tax, campaign finance reform, or sanctions against Iraq.

    A second obstacle is that coming to see our single-issue social and political problems as rooted in corporate domination of society requires a systemic analysis that is not encouraged by those in power. We can more readily make a social and ethical assessment of abortion, for example, than we can trace the impulse to resort to abortion to the social and economic pressures generated by lopsided wealth and privilege. Since a special effort has to be put forth to trace the damage done by corporate wealth and power on the various single issues that we tend to treat atomistically, it is not surprising that many of us plead lack of time for such an analysis in the light of our pressing professional obligations.

    A third inhibition is that if we dare to speak about a system that needs radical overhaul, it is likely to arouse the fear and hostility of those who fund our institutions far more than anything we may say about biblical interpretations or single issues in the culture wars. To speak up on issues that run against conventional consensus or popular complacency -- issues that may require radical reformist, anticapitalist, or socialist critique -- and that endanger our professional security may take considerable courage. Given the high stakes, a prudential assessment may conclude that whatever good we could accomplish by our critique would be offset by the damage to ourselves and the institutions we serve.

The Effect of Biblical Scholars in Shaping Public Discourse

    The net effect that we biblical scholars have had in public discourse is closely related to the issues we have most often addressed. We have had considerable influence on debates about the historicity of the Bible because we are generally recognized to be talking about a subject on which we are knowledgeable. Insofar as the Bible is drawn into the culture wars, we have had some impact. However, it is obvious that our contributions fall far short of any consensus, precisely because our own views are fractured and often sharply opposed along social, political, cultural, and religious fault lines. It may be said with some truth that our “divided” biblical scholarly input on public issues has tended to cancel out our conflicting views and dilute our impact on public opinion and public policy. In spite of confused and superficial media discourse on the Bible and public issues, I suspect we have had our most significant impact on smaller audiences of students and church folk, as well as on secular groups where we have been invited to speak. The readership and lecture circuit of certain biblical scholars such as Walter Brueggemann and Marcus Borg, not to mention prominent evangelical and fundamentalist figures, extend more widely than most of us manage to attain with our academic tomes. However, even the more popular “liberal” biblical interpreters are less given to directly addressing current public issues than to stressing biblical themes and values which have potential for shaping public policy.

    When it comes to the larger public issues of social and political values and priorities, our contributions trail off for the reasons mentioned above. Peter Steinfels, in his NY Times “Beliefs” column (10/21/00), notes that the numerous bright and capable religious thinkers and scholars “seldom appear on America’s common cultural stage.” The exceptions he mentions, such as Martin Marty and Peter Berger – to whom we might well add Robert Bellah and Cornel West – do not include biblical scholars. It is not likely that this situation will change any time soon. In this regard, it seems to me that our professional societies might be more helpful in providing forums for discussion of the bearing of the Bible on public issues. As it stands in the SBL, most such forums have been much more oriented to cultural issues around race, gender, and third-world perspectives and far less to issues around more embracing socioeconomic and political issues. The SBL’s official nonpolitical stance is long standing. As far as I know, the SBL’s overt social and political involvements have been confined to two actions: one to help scholars fleeing Nazi Germany to find refuge and employment in the U.S. and the other to avoid holding national meetings in any state that declined to vote for the Equal Rights Amendment. My own vision is not that the SBL would itself take social and political positions but rather that it would promote programs in which biblical scholarship and public issues could be examined in tandem. This would have the advantage of placing scholarly self-education on these matters directly within our professional orbit.

Challenges and Dilemmas for Biblical Scholars in Going Public

    Concerning our individual involvements in public issues, I want to make four points about the challenges and dilemmas we face.

    First, there are considerations of how our public involvement relates to our ongoing professional duties and obligations. We do have classes to meet, faculty administration to conduct, and we struggle to research and write. Will our “going public” damage the primary tasks we understand to be our responsibility to the institutions that employ us and to the wider biblical scholarly guild on which our professional reputation and advancement hinges?

    Secondly, the extent of our knowledge about public issues is closely connected to the first point. It does not prove helpful to “sound off” about issues on which we are poorly informed. In addition to our professional responsibilities, do we have time and opportunity to become informed on public issues? Speaking for myself, I have found involvement in social and political issues to be a stimulant to my teaching, research, and writing. But this clearly is not the case with many other biblical scholars. Everyone’s situation is different, and I am not inclined to pass judgment on colleagues who stay out of the public eye for one reason or another.

    Thirdly, it may be that the most disconcerting dilemma we face is the growing recognition that the Bible speaks with many voices, that there is no single biblical deliberation on social and political issues, either then or now. Historical-criticism, amplified by newer literary, social scientific, and cultural studies, together with a panoply of hermeneutical orientations – including the aforementioned race, gender, and third-world perspectives – brings us to a critical moment when the biblical scholar who “goes public” also “goes out on the limb.” As biblical interpreters, we are shaped by autobiographical, psychological, cultural, social, economic, philosophical, and religious factors that are not simply derived from biblical authority. When we “go public,” there is no “cover” behind which we can hide our own intellectual and moral responsibility for how we read the biblical texts as contemporary resources.

    Lastly, at whatever level we accept or more actively decided to be public, whether in the classroom and writings, in commissions and projects pursuing particular public issues, or in visibility on a wider public stage, it becomes of high urgency for us to develop a rationale concerning those issues we feel competent and compelled to speak about and the forums in which we choose to speak. Our neutrality and innocence as biblical scholars is crumbling away. We are reminded of the remark of Althusser and Balibar, spoken in regard to Marx’s Das Kapital but transferable to all texts thought to bear some authority for the present, “As there is no such thing as an innocent reading, we must say what reading we are guilty of” (Reading Capital, 14). I take it that “guilt” in this context refers not to personal moral failing but to personal responsibility and accountability. If we want to go public, or even if we are “dragged” into the public eye, we biblical scholars must accept personal intellectual and moral agency for our deliberations and pronouncements.

Postscript, June 30, 2002

    The above address preceded the attacks of September 11, 2001, which decisively “shook up” the landscape of public issues in the United States. To date most of the response from religious and academic circles has focused on the Muslim notion of jihad and to a lesser extent on the concept of just war developed in Christian moral theology. So far, the independent intellectual commentary on the so-called “war on terrorism” has been almost entirely by secular figures such as Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and Howard Zinn. There has been no nationally visible assessment of the “causes” and “consequences” of September 11 in the context of overreaching U.S. foreign policy that attempts to employ biblical perspectives. Neither the government nor the media are clamoring for theological or biblical reflections on events that supposedly “changed everything.” Of course, discussion and reflection in religious and academic circles is going on “below the national radar screen:” much of it occurs in email and on websites, but few of these localized conversations filter into the public media. Interestingly, I can report one low-level exception. Shortly after September 11, I was asked to write a piece on “The Bible and Terrorism” that appeared serially in the major Korean language newspaper published in California. The invitation came at the instigation of the paper’s regular columnist on religion in the news. The article was subsequently published in the Korean journal, Christian Thought.

    One would think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now closely linked to the U.S. “war on terrorism,” would be a top candidate for commentary by biblical scholars insofar as Israeli land claims based on the Bible are a major ingredient in the conflict. I am unaware of any in-depth study in political ethics by a biblical scholar, either Jewish or Christian, that addresses the biblical warrants cited for Israeli land claims. Fear of being branded “anti-Semitic” is a deterrent to engaging this topic, and the overwhelming tilt in American attitudes toward “democratic” Israel and “terrorist” Palestine is a formidable mindset to counter with even the most moderate criticism. To these obstacles should be added dispensationalist fundamentalism which insists on Israeli conquests as a step in God’s plan for the end of the world.

    In recent weeks, a renewed attention to corporate greed has emerged with astonishing revelations of massive corruption in a series of large U.S. corporations, raising not only critical moral issues but also seriously threatening the profitable operation of the stock market. This development now bids to rival “terrorism” as a major concern of the American public. It is too early to tell if biblical scholars will have anything to say about the rampant systemic greed that set the stage for this far-reaching corruption. I am not talking about moral denunciations of greedy persons, for there will be plenty of those, but about a systemic analysis that finds an analogical counterpart in biblical political economy. I am not holding my breath for biblical scholars to be any more involved on this systemic issue of how wealth is generated and shared -- and not shared -- than they have been on other comparable issues.

    * This article will appear in a forthcoming issue of Biblical Interpretation. A Journal of Contemporary Approaches. It is a slightly revised version of an invited address at the Southwest Society of Biblical Literature Regional Meeting in Fort Worth, TX, in March 2001, to which I append a Postscript in the light of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. A more autobiographical treatment of this topic, “Political Activism and Biblical Scholarship: An Interview,” in which I am interviewed by the editor, appears in Tracking “The Tribes of Yahweh.” On the Trail of a Classic, ed. Roland Boer [JSOT Sup, 351]. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002, 157-171.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.