Thursday, September 13, 2007

History, the Bible, and Belief

If you haven't ventured over to Judy Redman's blog for a while, she has what I think is a very interesting post. It comes out of her experience as an ordained minister, and I find that it says a lot about the problems/challenges that historians face in the classroom and in lecture halls when discussing biblical materials from a critical perspective. The question that is raised comes from one of Geoff's comments. How did we get to be religiously illiterate people? Why are we so willing to be modern with everything else in our lives, except when it comes to the Bible?

Judy discusses the sorts of reactions that people have to historical criticism of the Bible. These are typical too in my classroom and in public lecture venues, especially when people are first-timers to critically and historically assessing biblical materials. Some are delighted to finally be discussing issues that they haven't been able to do in typical confessional groups. They are finding answers to questions that they have had for years. They engage and express relief and true joy. Others wonder what is going on and want to know when am I going to start talking like a minister. Still others close down because what I do with the texts is not something that they have encountered before in church or bible studies. I usually hear criticisms - that my approach to the biblical literature is "biased," by which is usually meant that I am biased because I do not assume the text's inspired nature and infallibility. In this way, whatever historical work I do on the texts is dismissed by them off hand.

I have wondered about this for years, since it is a continual struggle. Where does this illiteracy and the resistance to becoming literate about biblical issues come from? Judy tells us about her experience within the church, and I find this "confession" fascinating. What I have thought about in this regard is not so much the church, but at least here in the States, the separation of Church and State. Many Christians complain about this separation because they want to pray in schools and hold bible studies as part of the curriculum; but really the separation of Church and State has done more to foster their devotional Christianity than not. Why? Because 100% of education about Christianity is controlled by the churches, until college when it can be elected as a class. So when students come into one of my classes approaching the bible from an historical-critical perspective, there is no preparation for that. Since what I do is so different from anything they have encountered before in the pew, it is easily dismissed as "biased" against Christianity, and folded into the "false teacher" rhetoric.

So I add to Judy's opinion that church leaders have kept the historical perspective under wraps - when the State can't teach youngsters about the critical history of religion(s), this leaves its education to the Church, which can choose what it wants to tell its parish and what it wants to keep silent about.

Now, just in case you jump to the wrong conclusion, I'm not advocating that the State take control of religious education. Why? Because I am more afraid of how terribly this would be done than I am about leaving it undone. I am afraid that it would turn into involuntary confessional bible courses, rather than historical critical studies of the bible and religion(s) such as is done on university campuses.

Long and short of it - if you go to college, take Religious Studies courses and learn. If you don't go to college, go to the bookstore or university library and get books (respected historical ones; not pop junk) to read on your own. As far as religious education, it is up to you.


Pastor Bob said...


It isn't happening everywhere. There are some truly great courses produced by an outfit called "Kerygma." While the Biblical material is approached from a Christian perspective we also study the material through a variety of disciplines, everything from historical critical method to sociological studies to the history of how we got the Bible.

My favorite Kerygma course is on Handel's Messiah. It teaches what the texts in the Messiah meant in the original historial environment, (and yes we talked about second Isaiah), how they were reinterpreted by Hew Testament writers and editors and then how Handel reinterprets them through the music. I admit it did take me a while to convince newcomers that Isaiah and 2nd Isaiah meant something different than the NT authors.

Some of us are trying.

David said...

I could not agree more. I took OT and NT courses in college on a lark, ended up doing a religion major. I was fascinated that the historical-critical approach even existed, having never heard of it. I regard this revelation as one of the turning points in my life.

About a year ago, a friend and I were showing a movie at a local venue, and the discussion after turned to religious literacy, and particularly biblical literacy. One of our guests said that he was a UCC minister (or whatever they call UCC in Canada) visiting from Canada. He said that his experience was different. His church actively promotes study of the Bible from the historical-critical approach, but the many of his parishioners tell him they don't want any more education in that arena.

I have come across several sources that are concerned about religious illiteracy, Bible or other, such as Neale Donald Walsh (Tomorrow's God), but there doesn't seem to be an organized upswelling of concern, not enough critical mass.

If anyone is specifically interested in this, feel free to visit my blog, which I only occasionally contribute to:
Updating Religion

Phil Snider said...


I think that what we are seeing in the criticism to the historico-critical method in church settings is a clash of worldview. That is, while the historical level shouldn't be ignored, many Christians feel that it should not dominate. I find it telling that you are discussing biblical illiteracy in terms which seem to assume that the only way to demonstrate biblical literacy is the historico-critical method (or so it reads to me). I think that is rather too narrow a definition and fails to give scope to other readings which, along with a historical-critical reading, can enrich our understanding of Scripture. Why do we have to make the assumption that this is the only literacy we should value in the church?

Second, please remember that theology and religious studies, while studying the same subject have different orientations. I won't expand on that here and now, but I have commented on this blog and I have a new blog entry at my blog this week which deals with this (I'd love to see the opinion of religious studies folks to see if I'm being fair). It is this orientation that causes the worldview clash which elicits the behavior you are setting out.

Third, I personally am not freaked out by the historico-critical method. Sometimes, it brings an insight which is truly valuable. Sometimes, it entirely misses the point. Sometimes it is even corrosive to faith. It is a mixed bag (just as theology is, incidently), so I tend to treat it as one among many tools. My concern with this post is that it treats it like it is the only tool.

Phil said...

Academics, ministers and biblical studies students have my sympathy. They no doubt have struggles of their own over matters of Christian belief. So they probably understand difficulties churchgoers might face when confronted with ideas from academia. I am reticent to talk about my beliefs to people in the church. And I can be a good hypocrite.

Personally, I feel that many academics do not go far enough. Many have a long way to move from their unrealistic, literalist historical interpretations. They perhaps feel that departure from the concensus established by the academy would be rocking the boat to much. Although I disagree with most of what she has written, what 'tipped me over' some years ago was watching Barbara Thiering on TV defend her views against some pretty cynical fellow academics. She may be incorrect in her views, but she is not lacking in spine.

Tomorrow I am off to Jersey for a week, staying in a 'Christian' hotel backing onto St Brelades Bay. I hope to be jogging on the beach, swimming in the sea, and being a good hypocrite.

Ralph Hitchens said...

I attend church & Adult Sunday School at a fairly mainstream United Methodist Church. A couple of years ago I volunteered to teach a Sunday School series on "New Testament Scholarship" that I developed based on my own interest in the subject. It surveyed the discipline in q&d fashion from Reimarius down to the present day, plus separate class sessions on each of the gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul, & the non-Biblical evidence for Jesus. Although a couple of my more knowledgeable coreligionists were skeptical about running this course, thinking that it might challenge those "weak in faith," I had a group of 7-8 who hung in there and found it interesting, and nobody wandered off & became an atheist. I believe such a course can & should be made available in other churches.

Judy Redman said...

I suspect that one of the problems in contemporary churches is that many churchgoers get their understanding of the Bible from sermons and Sunday School. It is absolutely impossible to explain so people can understand it how historical-critical method isn't saying that the Bible is a pack of lies in the space of a 15 or even a 20 minute sermon. Nor is it possible to explain historical criticism to the average 10 year old. So things that are actually many shades of grey get presented as though they were black and white. And when someone suggests that there are greys, people who like their faith to be black and white respond negatively and people who have been finding that the black and white faith doesn't work in the world they live in get excited.

I also suspect that this is the reason why the people for whom black and white faith leave the "mainstream" denominations to attend more conservative ones, while people who need all the shades of grey just leave the church. I actually know far more people who used to be church-goers but don't go any more because what was being presented didn't work than I do people who were once members of the more "mainstream" churches who are now in more conservative churches, but the "mainstream" churches seem to perceive that people leave them to go to other churches.

Phil, I'd be interested to hear how you would like to broaden the concept of biblical literacy.

Phil Snider said...


In answer to your question, I think we have to recognize other ways of reading Scripture such as lectio divina (the imaginative appropriate of Scripture to one's life), theological readings, ethical readings and allegory/typology. My concern with relying solely on historico-critical readings is that such a reliance ignores the entire point of Scripture. Scripture was not intended as a pure history. Yes, Scripture has historical concerns and these can't be ignored, but we read it as a historical problem at the risk of missing the point entirely. Rather the Bible is trying to set out a narrative of the revelation of the story of God and his people (Israel and the grafts on Israel).

What all this means is that it is perfectly possible to be very biblically literate (in the sense of being familiar and engaging on a deep level with Scripture) without necessarily engaging in historico-critical method. Surely, we both know people who know their way through the Bible so thoroughly that it becomes a part of their lives. Perhaps those readings do not jive well with the historico-critical method, but we would declare them deficient at our peril.


Pastor Nicole said...

I still remember my first exposure to the historical-critical method (which happened to be in your class). I was furious and confused at why I had never been taught anything like that before in church. Since then, I have vowed that I would never allow the people of whatever parish I am serving to be blind to this type of study.

So, I've been teaching my youth group about the 5 source theory in Genesis. They were confused at first, but now I think its helping them make more sense of the actual text.

- Jo

Aaron Armitage said...

I think Phil's perspective here is the most sound one.

It should be said here that many historical critics do indeed think the Bible is a pack of lies; they wouldn't put it that harshly, of course, but a polite black is not gray. And it should be said that more conservative positions than most critics would ever entertain can be defended on sound critical grounds.

But the more fundamental point is that a historical-critical approach treats the Bible as having no interest except as an antiquarian curiousity. Most people are not antiquarians, and therefore will find nothing of interest in that approach. And it is biased, not merely because you don't assume inspiration, but because your approach never addresses the Bible on its own terms and delegitimizes any reading that does(i.e, "illiteracy"). That is, it not only assumes the Bible might be fallible, it assumes it has nothing to say to us. Anyone who knows otherwise will be offended at this and should be.

Joseph Sinkiewicz said...

Dr. DeConick,

If I may make a personal comment. Until just a few years ago I would have counted myself among the religiously illiterate. Now I would consider myself "semi-literate" at best. I come from a non-religious background that made me feel a bit uncomfortable around people who attended church. I had questions, but was afraid they would trigger a "have you been saved" response.

The historical critical approach has opened up a whole new world for me. I'm not a scholar but I am very interested in the diverse origins of Christianity. This blog, the ones that it is linked to and the thoughtful comments made by various readers have supplied a wealth of information that is very much appreciated.

In my explorations I've attended classes, lectures and other events along the historical critical theme. Some of these were held in churches where I met people who were willing to step out of their comfort zones. There were even times when I stepped out of mine.

Without the historical approach as a lead in I wouldn't have discovered that "sense of wonder" that can be found in both canon and non-canon scripture

I don't know if others have had this experience, I just know that I'm enjoying the path I'm on.