By James Crossley
Department of Biblical Studies
University of Sheffield
This is not a joke: what do Hector Avalos and William Lane Craig have in common? The study of the Bible! It may be that Avalos wants to bring about the end of that which is deemed a cultural cancer but he still recognizes that to do this he must study this collection and his argument clearly assumes the Bible as something deeply embedded in culture. Like most university departments where the Bible is studied, my own department has students from a range of backgrounds where believers and non-believers will openly disagree, sometimes sharply. But they are all committed to the study of the Bible as a culturally important collection of texts and have defended such study with great vigor and determination. As my colleagues often point out, even prominent atheists bemoan a perceived biblical illiteracy. If you don’t know your Bible and biblical interpretation you are not going to understand some of the strange things human beings do and you are not going to get far analyzing Michelangelo, Emily Dickinson, Caravaggio, Lars von Trier, Spenser, Tolstoy, Milton, Philip Pullman, Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot, Dan Brown, Samuel Beckett, Elizabeth Jennings, Mel Gibson, Johnny Cash, Toni Morrison, William Blake...
There is a basic argument which ought to be used but only fairly: the Bible is very important and lots of people hold part or all of it as their sacred text. The implied criticism: it is probably best not to use this argument and then do (say) some standard traditional historical exegetical work with only a token use of the high rhetoric of "relevance." This is not to criticize some of the more traditional historical critical work; on the contrary, the argument, when used in such instances, needs to be sharpened. Traditional historical criticism needs to be vigorously defended in a way that will show why it is "relevant" because, alas, arguments about critical thinking being civilized don’t work with the not-so-civilized. In terms of the arts and humanities, historical questions concerning ancient Israel, the Pentateuch, the historical Jesus, and Christian origins, have been massive issues in the history of ideas with significant cultural ramifications, and negative ones for some of those poor souls who pioneered historical critical approaches. Moreover, the biblical texts were written, composed and canonized over periods of formative world history, interacting with the major empires. The "religion" of Paul and John of Patmos even became the Roman Empire!
And this leads us to reception. Arguably it is the study of the reception, use, and influence of the Bible and biblical texts which has the greatest claim to "relevance." I do not need to remind readers (but readers may need to remind others) that the Bible and biblical texts have been used to support countless wars, to oppose countless wars, to rationalize slavery, to overthrow slavery, to justify imperialism, to resist imperialism, and all the ambiguous positions somewhere in between. Biblical interpretation is hardly a minor player in major historical changes: simply think of the Reformation and the English Civil War. Other disciplines may colonize famous intellectual figures such as Aquinas and Kierkegaard but were they not interpreters of the Bible too, or even primarily? All of this raises further questions: why is it that so many people are influenced by this collection of texts and believe some very strange things contained therein and why do leaders of the most powerful nation on earth feel the need to utilize the Bible in their rhetoric? Such questions are tackled by biblical scholars and such questions should show clearly enough that the Bible is deeply embedded and resonates or echoes in so many cultural and historical contexts. To ignore such a profoundly important collection on the basis of presumed irrelevance means few disciplines in the humanities should be allowed to survive, if that dubious logic were to be applied consistently.
There is one discipline which, rightly or wrongly, gets treated as a sister discipline of biblical studies: theology. Personally, I would advocate something along the lines of a genuinely radical "anything goes" policy on subjects studied but I know people in universities are not happy with the luxury of a protected place for professional confessional theology in any economic times, let alone these present ones. Certainly, one aspect of theology can be defended as above: theology has been important in the history of ideas. When we talk about questions of the deification of Jesus, the origins of the Pentateuch, and so on, we are, on one level, studying the history of theological ideas which are of no more or less obvious importance than any other area of study, at least by the general assumptions of humanities departments. But we all know theology is not simply about historical reconstruction or the like. For many, theology is confessional with a tradition guiding/giving the answers and, in the case of the faintly totalitarian Radical Orthodoxy, maybe a return to medieval Christianity for us all. I suspect that this sort of confessionalism, rightly or wrongly, could face difficulties in defending itself as an approach in universities.
Except… Like historical critical approaches, theology can still bring in money and attract students. A less crass and more intellectual case has, however, come from an unexpected source: atheist philosophers. Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, and others have turned to Christian theology, most notably the influence of Paul, to highlight what is deemed the revolutionary heart of western thought, Marxism before Marx if you like. This could simply be another case of studying the importance of the history of ideas and it is, to some extent. But things are not so red and white, to steal a phrase recently used of the late British politician Michael Foot. When Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Žižek get into bed with confessional theologians like Herbert McCabe and John Milbank, then it is clear that confessional theology really does have some unlikely advocates.
Back to biblical studies and this obvious question: we all know why our subject matters so isn’t all the above just preaching to the converted? Yes and no. The humanities will no doubt be the first target within universities in times of recession and cuts, and attention has already turned to those subjects deemed "irrelevant." Unfortunately, the critical study of the Bible can be misunderstood as academics at prayer, though in my own institution, at least, I think there is a growing recognition of what the critical and interdisciplinary understanding of the Bible offers – this is a battle which can be won. If we really care about the critical study of the Bible as an academic discipline, then we need to recognize that the present economic situation is hardly going to be favorable for the humanities in universities and we need to realize (as many do) that knives will be sharpened for areas relating to biblical studies. While I think this very ethos is wrong, it can be immediately challenged – and challenged effectively – by showing that the critical study of the Bible is at the heart of the humanities. Indeed, some of the ways I sketched above can show why such humanistic study is of utmost cultural importance and why the humanities are important (very similar arguments apply across the academic board). It is no doubt the case that the whole structure of universities needs to be radically rethought but in the meantime let us not leave the future lacking in such a crucial discipline for understanding human beings.