Sunday, September 7, 2008

A long post weighing in on Avalos and Koester

I have been reluctant to become too involved in the controversy over biblical studies - not because I don't have an opinion, but because over the years I have come to realize just how complex this issue is. In many ways, it is a debate about idealism and realism, at least as it as played out in my own experience as a professor in the field.

When I first began teaching, I set up a proper curriculum in my mind at a liberal arts college in a religious studies department. I changed out the old curriculum which was canonically based with a new curriculum that did not include categories like "Old Testament," "Hebrew Bible," "New Testament," "Apocrypha" or the like. I did not want to continue to arrange the curriculum around religious categories that preferenced one particular religious tradition over another.

All went well until I offered my Christian Origins course. I enrolled six people. Then I offered my Ancient Israel course. Again I enrolled six people (not the same six, and in a different semester). Usually my courses enrolled 25-30, so these numbers were weird. So I decided to try an experiment. I changed the name of the Christian Origins course but kept everything else the same - course description, syllabus, exercises. I put it on the books as The New Testament and Christians Origins. The class enrolled at 25. I didn't get a chance to try out The Old Testament and Ancient Israel because I moved to Rice before I retaught the course.

Now I have thought about this experience a lot because it taught me something about the expectations of young people in America and their interests. The young people in my courses are not aware of the debates of the academy until they enroll and we get talking about them. What do most of them know? They know the words "Old Testament" and "New Testament" and they think they know what this means in terms of content.

Does the biblical canon influence us in America? Certainly, everything from politics (where I see the religious bible right moving to a hostile takeover [akin to what happened with the Southern Baptist Convention]) to literature. And wherever I have taught (Michigan, Illinois, Texas), it (as the "Word of God") has a prominent hold on a very large portion of our youth. And yet, in my experience as a teacher, these young people (before they enroll) know next to nothing about what the texts actually say, what the difference is between historical readings and doctrinal readings, how, when, and why the canon came together as it did and what the heck this means, and so forth.

So this has prompted me to create a 100-level course called "Introduction to Biblical Studies" (which I taught in Illinois for years) and now "Introduction to New Testament Studies" (which I teach here at Rice). In this course I cover everything from oral culture, literacy, manuscript traditions, development of canon, diversity of early Christianity, and historical readings (source, form, redaction, social scientific, feminist, tradition, rhetorical, literary, post-modern criticisms - and how these types of readings differ from doctrinal readings in terms of purpose and questions). Frankly, I wish that every college in America offered this type of course. It is unbelievable how much this information excites students and motivates them to want to know more.

There is another issue that we face in the academy. Jobs. There is a difference between seminaries, divinity schools, private (often religious-affiliated) universities, liberal arts colleges, and state universities. Each of these places has different needs in terms of teaching religion, and when you go on the job market, you need to be clear and honest with yourself about which of these types of departments you want to work in.

For a department in a religious-affiliated school, including seminaries, the concentration there is going to be teaching canonical materials, and often the historical method is trumped by theological hermeneutics. This doesn't mean that the historical method isn't taught, but that doctrinal issues and contemporary hermeneutics are going to be emphasized. The students who are enrolling in the courses are enrolling mainly to become ministers of a faith tradition, or who just want to learn more about contemporary hermeneutical readings of the material. Historical methods and linguistics are background or serve to support the doctrinal hermeneutics going on in the course. These schools need and want people in Old Testament, New Testament, Gospels, Paul, Systematic theology, Ethics, and so forth. There are a lot more jobs in these types of institutions than non-affiliated religious studies departments.

When non-affiliated religious studies departments post in Old Testament and New Testament, or Biblical Studies, what they are after is someone who handles the religious textual, exegetical and ideological traditions from a historical perspective. This is different from a post in Early Jewish or Christian Studies which is likely looking for a historian who handles social, political, gender and religious history.

The Society of Biblical Literature is a society that works with both of these constituencies, as does AAR. These are societies whose members include everyone from theologians, to philosophers, to historians, to textual critics, no matter the religious tradition studied. Neither society is exclusively secular or exclusively religiously-affiliated. Both interests are found among its members and its units.

It is not new news that there are over a hundred people who apply ever year and do not get jobs. In my time, fifteen years ago, it was even worse than this. In the eighties, PhD programs admitted many more people into their programs than could ever be employed by the market. This led to many people not getting jobs, and ending up with an enormous amount of debt that they couldn't pay off. And yes, they ended up driving cabs, or going back to law school. I ended up working in university administration part time for three years, until I finally got my first tenure-track position at Illinois Wesleyan. Helmut Koester is the one who encouraged me, telling me that the average wait was going to be 3 to 5 years post-graduation.

The universities sobered up to this fact and realized how unethical it was to continue to put out so many PhDs with so much debt and no way to pay. So in the nineties, they consolidated their funding. This meant that they began to let into the program far fewer people but funding each of these people more fully. This hasn't fixed the problem entirely - there are still PhDs that never get a tenure-track job - but it has helped - and it has made getting into PhD program highly competitive.

Where does this leave me in terms of my thoughts on the subject? I understand Koester's position on the reality of American religiosity and what this means for those of us who study and teach early Christianity. I understand Avalos' position to rid the historical study of early Judaism and Christianity from its canonical limitations (including the name "Biblical Studies"), because these limitations support religious and theological interests. I personally have negotiated this front by breaking canonical boundaries in my own scholarship, creating sections at SBL which cross canonical boundaries, and teaching beyond these boundaries. But this doesn't mean to me that the biblical texts aren't essential to early Judaism and Christianity. In fact, their importance reverberates for centuries and centuries, and yes, they are still with us.

In my opinion, teaching the bible is more important than ever in America. We are faced with the religious right taking over the Republican party, a party who has just reformed its platform to denounce abortion even in cases of harm to the mother and rape. How many of us are now seeing emerge in our communities public policies like teaching creationism as science? What is next?

So rather than debate the semantics of Biblical Studies, I say we need to concentrate on educating our youth about the history of the Bible and its influence, so that our young people will have the information to evaluate for themselves the claims that religious faith traditions make before it really is too late.


Daniel Graves said...

Thank you for a measured, reasonable, and realistic look at this topic. I appreciate also that your approach is so student centred.

Keep up your excellent work, both academically and with this blog.

Jason said...

Stimulating thoughts April, particularly since I'm trying to defy the odds on the job market this year and have been thinking much about these issues.

By the way, I tried to offer a course here at Michigan under the rubric "Origins of Christianity" and failed to meet the minimum enrollment for a summer term (10). A year later I offered a "New Testament" course at had 29 students enrolled!

April DeConick said...


Yes. Your experience at Michigan does not surprise me since I remember well teaching summer courses there in NT. They will fill with that title, but not Christian Origins. And summer counts on enrollment to go. Best for your future!

April DeConick said...


Thank you!

Pastor Bob said...

Ya know maybe I'm just weird or at 55 a pastor with too much time on my hands but I would love to take a course in Christian origins. The Gnostics fascinate me, although it takes a lot of work to figure out the meaning in amongst all their angels.

Seems to me that the various different ways that people interpreted Jesus is very interesting.

Of course if all you want is help for life today, (and I think the Bible provides that), you won't be interested in the Ebionites, the Gnostics, the Arians, etc.

But hey, a guy's got to have some fun, right?

José Solano said...

You don't have to be from the Christian "right" to abhor abortion. Many on the Christian "left" abhor it as do many agnostics, atheists and perhaps most of humanity from all religious faiths.

As for the rest of your post I think you make excellent points and clarifications.

Roadscholar said...

Thank you for speaking out, April. I am both perplexed and distraught by the right’s viewpoints on so many issues, especially as this pivotal election draws near and as McCain, as of today, has pulled ahead of Obama in the polls. My word for their viewpoints has always been ‘hypocrisy,’ so thank you for showing me that it's more likely due to an ignorance of the Bible. So “how would Jesus vote?” Because I can't think of a single Republican platform issue that Jesus would agree with—except possibly the abortion issue—and considering the way we are destroying the entire planet with our overpopulation, even that one, I think, is a toss-up. Did he not say “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!” (Matt 24:19) But think about it. According to the New Testament, Jesus would have us pay our taxes, not seek to escape paying them. The wealthy should give charity to the poor (or all of their money, if they “want to be perfect”) not fight against social programs. We should turn the other cheek when attacked (even as on 9/11, I suppose, if we “want to be perfect”) not create a bunch of lies to trick the people into going into a war against another nation that had nothing to do with it, at the expense of tens of thousands of innocent lives. Did not Jesus say “[The devil] is a liar and the father of lies?” (John 8:44) So if there is enough left of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights for me to say it, I would like to say to all you right-wingers, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.” (John 8:44) You are the new Pharisees, the new hypocrites—and if there’s one thing Jesus hated, it was hypocrites. Yes, I think it’s just plain ignorance, and as Jesus might say, “You do not know me or my Father.” (John 8:19) Thanks, April. The truth, I pray, will set us free.

Judy Redman said...

Thanks for this, April. I agree that students find this kind of teaching fascinating when they come across it, but also that they won't go out looking for it.

I have just finished a series of Bible studies with my campus group on the parables of the Kingdom in Matthew, but what we did was to look at the parallels in the other canonical gospels and in Thomas. I gave the students a quick introduction to oral transmission as it applies to the gospels and some background on eyewitness testimony from my SBL Auckland paper. They were really excited by it and one young man who belongs to a pentecostal church said that he'd been to lots and lots of bible studies but this (he only came to the last one) was the most interesting he'd ever been to.

We talked about how what we learned might apply in our lives and the lives of others and how we might use it to talk about our faith with others, so it wasn't traditional academic biblical studies, but it certainly included it and it just as certainly excited the group members. I am seeing no major signs of it threatening their faith, as some of my colleagues when I was studying theology were sure that introducing this kind of thing would do.

And on a slightly different tack - I am not sure that it would be a good thing if universities only turned out the same number of PhDs as there were tenure track jobs. Some people with PhDs are not cut out to be teachers. I know. I was taught by several. :-)

Drew Tatusko said...

Good response.

I have a problem with his apparent focus on research institutions, faculty data that is largely driven by research institutions and community colleges as they have the lion's share of enrollments, and seeming exclusion of a very healthy market in Christian higher education these days.

I have been pushing him on Debunking to discuss how biblical studies is failing in religiously-affiliated institutions, divinity schools, bible colleges, etc. where the market for religious studies is the most robust and successful since theology and biblical studies all but left the majority of university programs. He he continues to go back to state funded universities and research universities - so far. It looks like he is using skewed data that I have read all before in order to support his point.

I mean, let's face it, if I were to include only fundamentalist colleges in a study of religious higher education since 1850, the result would be that religious higher education is failing, e.g. Burtchaell's book Dying of the Light. Notre Dame and Baylor would even be out of the running!

You can make data say anything given how you limit your samples. His conditions seem arbitrary enough that his argument is totally unconvincing.

I agree completely that the misuse of religion to support less than compassionate ideological structures demands that we increase religious literacy as part of the continued public mission of higher education. Getting rid of it would be like excising gun safety education for people who want to use guns just because we are big fans of guns. If people are using something as a weapon they should not, teach them how not to use it as a weapon, but to serve humanity more effectively.

Drew Tatusko said...

That should have been NOT big fans of guns...

Ralph Hitchens said...

I echo everyone else, re. what a great post this was. For my part I never found the intellectual curiousity that led me into New Testament scholarship to inhibit, in any way, my spiritual life as a Christian. History in its purest sense -- exploring the past without intellectual constraints or preconditions -- is another sort of spirituality, I believe.

Pastor Bob said...

First, I'm going to agree that reading texts that didn't make it into the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament are necessary to understanding the period in which the canonical material was gathered and the decisions were made. How can one really understand the world of Jesus without knowing about the Maccabbees?

Second, while I might disagree with Dr. Deconick about some political issues I think the more Christians know about the Bible the more they can make informed decisions based on the Bible.

For example the claim that the Bible supports capitalism is so ridiculous I don't even know what to say. Well, actually I do because I preach against it. And I consider myself to be an Evangelical.

David said...

It seems to me that this thread hints at but also hides some of the contributing issues.

There have been a number of publications recently on religious literacy that have shown how religiously-ignorant Americans (in particular) are. On the other hand, I am sure we have all seen or heard about situations in which attempts to re-introduce religious studies into school curricula have met with opposition and outrage, especially from but not limited to the religious right.

What this contradiction reminds me of is the growing trend, as I see it, of deliberate religious ignorance within the religious establishments. In my salad days, ministers had to study Greek and Hebrew in seminary. I remember a Lutheran neighbor sweating over his Greek textbook, not to mention my mother learning Hebrew at Union in her 50's. Perhaps this is still true in some environments, but I was appalled to learn that the PhD in Divinity Studies at Regent (Pat Robertson's pet university here in Virginia Beach) only offers (not requires?) one semester of language study, evenly divided between Hebrew and Greek. Let's see -- that's one-half semester of Hebrew and one-half semester of Greek TOTAL!

I suppose one could take a variety of interpretations of this fact, and the one that I choose to take is that they must not want their senior ministers burdened with the ability to check things out in the original languages. Easier to make stuff up out of ignorance (RANT!)

Given the general perception that I glean from a number of the posts on this site that the religious right is successfully forcing its agenda on the American public, I wonder if religious studies in academia can handle the challenge as the academy is currently structured?

Granted that limiting the number of PhD students to a number slightly more than the number of available positions is a good idea, what more/else could be done to make the case for de-canonicalizing biblical studies, for example?

Not having (yet) a totally comprehensive picture of everything that is happening in the world of religious studes, particularly biblical studies, I can think of only ONE group that is actively organized to promote religious literacy through scholarship, and that is the Jesus Seminar (Westar Institue). If anyone knows of other such organizations, please post!

Whatever you think of their approach or agenda, the Jesus Seminar actively promotes religious literacy through their scholarship on the New Testament. This provides opportunities for public speaking, as well as workshops, around the US. Where is the equivalent organization for Hebrew Bible studies or Dead Sea Scrolls studies, etc.? What out-of-the-box alternatives are there
to traditional tenure-track academic by-the-book scholarship?