Academics, Biblical Studies, and "The Man on the Street": Whither Biblical Studies on the Web?

Interest in the Bible is not being met by scholars, for the most part, but by amateurs, dilettantes and fundamentalists.

By Jim West
Quartz Hill School of Theology
October 2008

The long awaited return of Bible and Interpretation offers us an opportunity to consider afresh the value of such Internet resources for the propagation of biblical knowledge on the web. I'm grateful for the invitation to offer some thoughts on the subject, as it is one that is near and dear to me. In a curious twist of fate, this invitation arrived at exactly the same time that I was preparing a paper to be delivered at the 2009 Winter Meeting of the Society for Old Testament Study at the University of Cambridge. There my topic is to be the use of the Internet as a source for reliable biblical studies materials.

I have, for years now, argued that there is a hauntingly unfortunate amount of misinformation online when it comes to biblical studies. I have, further, argued in numerous places, that dilettantism is rampant and that scholars owe it to the public to speak up and offer materials that are reliable and accurate. Yet the problem isn't merely dilettantism and amateurism, it's also, amazingly, fundamentalism as well, meaning that biblical experts are actually involved in a war on two fronts.

In what follows, I would like to continue this line of thought and, at the end, urge academicians to take up the challenge of the Internet and get online and get involved in this two front war. On the left, the foe is dilettantism, and on the right, fundamentalism. The public "hungers and thirsts for rightness," to paraphrase a saying famous from the Gospels, and it is your duty, trained scholar of the biblical text, to provide it.

This latter assertion might seem odd to some. So I'll begin with a description of my own experience in biblical education.

I've been a Pastor for 25 years. In each of those years, I've led Bible study at the 3 churches I have served. In each of those churches, there has always been a resounding appreciation for bible study that was deeper than the shallow sorts of offerings often found in Sunday Schools and sermons. Or, to put it another way, my experience is that 'the man on the street' is very curious about the contents and meaning of the Bible. Many pastors, trained exegetes with seminary and graduate degrees, wrongly assume that their congregations can't absorb or understand more difficult subjects like the origin of biblical texts and historical studies related to the histories of Israel and the Church. But this assumption is wrong. Congregations, like persons outside the Church, are fascinated by things biblical.

This is verified by the interest in biblical studies in the wider culture. Bible Internet specials on TV and the sale of biblically themed books (both fiction and non-fiction) are off the charts. Who among us doesn't remember the astonishing success of the series of books published by Tim LaHaye? Or the interest in the nonsense called the "Talpiot Tomb" or the many Simcha Jacobovici "Naked Archaeologist" specials. Unfortunately, the bulk of this material is oriented towards fundamentalism (if not offered by outright dilettantes).

And that's where the problem arises; interest in the Bible is not being met by scholars, for the most part, but by amateurs, dilettantes and fundamentalists. More people think Ron Wyatt is a real archaeologist than have ever heard of Israel Finkelstein or Eric Cline. More believe the Da Vinci Code than they do John Meier. And more think that LaHaye's distorted dispensationalism / fundamentalism is the proper interpretive key to the book of Revelation. Indeed, more have read nonsense in print and online than they have read reliable materials because- if I might be frank- scholars haven't done a very good job of providing accessible materials. The vacuum left empty by scholars who either don't know the need or who are too ensconced in their ivory towers has been filled by foolishness.

For example, if you "Google" any biblical theme, like "prophecy" or "Jesus" or "Micah" or "Isaiah" or "John the Baptist'," very few, if any, of the top returns will be links to websites or materials by scholars. Try it. What is returned will often be links to a Wiki article or a "prophecy has been fulfilled and it's the end times" website or some other less than reliable and less than useful page. Unfortunately, and here's the core of the problem, the public can't discern between the good and the bad because they don't know what's right and what's rubbish.

By the way, I realize that some people trust Wiki and even send their students there to find information. But that's rather like setting a blind man free into the forest and asking him to find his way home. Wiki, by virtue of its nature, is unreliable. When anyone, at any time, can write anything, anywhere, that source is not to be trusted or relied upon. No one would set a box of crayons at the entrance of a university library and hang a sign over it that said "when you have a correction to make to any volume herein, feel free to do so." And the complaint that Wiki entries can later be corrected by persons who know better overlooks one simple fact- no one has the time or interest or energy, for that matter, to police Wiki entries. Yet rather than providing reliable materials many academics adopt the default position that "it's already out there on Wiki and people just need to read that." This is, I suggest, a grave mistake (and potentially even a touch of laziness).

The "two front war" (amateurism and fundamentalism) against biblical illiteracy needs to be fought by trained scholars who alone are capable of both spotting and debunking nonsense. Yet very few have entered the fray. Take off your shoes, and you can count the scholars who have a web presence. Examples of such are Ralph Klein, James Crossley, Mike Bird, Eric Cline, David Clines, Joe Zias, Chris Heard, Margaret Barker, and Mark Goodacre. There are, of course, others, but these few illustrate quite well that there are very few indeed. It would be much easier to come up with the names of scholars who don't have a web presence. I won't, simply because it is against my nature to annoy people intentionally. I think it enough to propose a simple test. Get up, walk into your library, read the authors' names of one shelf or two of books, and then compare those names to an online presence in the form of a website or Web blog.

The fundamentalists and the dilettantes are winning the web presence war because, in my estimation, scholars have not taken seriously a number of facts. 1) More people read websites, Web blogs, and the like than books. 2) Most "Bible-themed" websites are by persons without training in biblical studies (as a simple "Googling" will prove). And 3), the fundamentalists and dilettantes understood early on the value of the Internet for the dissemination of their particular brand of ideology. To put it plainly, they beat us to the punch. It's time to punch back. This is why the rebirth of Bible and Interpretation is so very important, I would even say vital, in the war on ignorance that every biblical scholar should become involved in. Every scholar is, after all, a soldier in the war for truth. Get off your rucksack, academician, and get into the fight.

1) Establish a website which features your own original work and links to other pages which contain accurate information.

2) Start a blog and enter into the discussion that is raging around the planet on everything from archaeological finds to the most inane claims of purported "experts."

3) Engage others in discussion on any number of e-lists devoted to biblical studies.

Trite as it may sound- if you aren't a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem. "All it takes for evil ignorance, dilettantism, and fundamentalism to triumph is for good scholars to do nothing."

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