The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.

When he penned these words, Mark Noll was the McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. Ironically, the administration at Wheaton College continues to affirm and entrench the truth of Noll’s thesis in their ousting of Larycia Hawkins.

There are many victims in these situations. First, the scholar and her family and loved ones. Second, the colleagues who have lost a member of their community and confidence in the integrity of their institution. Third, the students who are making a significant investment of both money and time. Having experienced a situation like this first-hand while working on my master’s degree, I can attest to how extremely distracting such manufactured crises are to the education one is supposed to be receiving.

There are those scholars who entered the evangelical outhouses of academia a generation ago when these kinds of anti-academic displays of bravado were less common, and I intend to stand in full solidarity with them as feckless administrators continue their reign of terror against honest, critically minded scholars. But there is a proverb that my generation of scholars should take to heart if they are considering risking their financial, intellectual, and psychological well-being through employment in any of the so-called schools that associate with Evangelicalism:

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Why Text Criticism? Evangelicals Can Surprise Us—and Yet Disappoint

I was reading in a book recommended to me long ago on lexical semantics, and I found something I was not expecting for a book written by an evangelical scholar. The recovery or reconstruction of an Urtext or original text has long represented the primary if not the sole purpose for many evangelicals who engage in textual criticism. If your theology is predicated on a doctrine of biblical inerrancy (true of many evangelicals, but not all!), you need a critical tool like textual criticism that enables you to explain away errors found in biblical manuscripts as foreign to your theologically constructed “Bible.” Since these errors could not be original to the text, they must have been introduced into the text subsequent to its production. Consequently, evangelicals often evaluate text forms that betray late scribal activity with suspicion. This pluriform textual tradition must represent a divergence from the singular and pristine (i.e., inerrant) original text of the Bible.

Both because of the evangelical commitments of the author and because the subject matter (lexical semantics) was not immediately relevant to the question of textual criticism, I was not expecting the author to make the following argument: Continue reading

Should One Get a PhD in Biblical Studies?

It amazes me—though it probably shouldn’t—how often students express interest in a biblical studies PhD despite the numerous warnings about meager job prospects in the field, many of which have appeared online in blog posts and editorials. I saw it recently on Facebook in the SBL Student Members group. We all want to hear that our desire to pursue a PhD in Biblical Studies is justified.

This particular student on Facebook received advice I have heard many times before, indeed it was advice that I myself had received. While there is never one determining factor in answering this question,  I have grown wary of one particular piece of advice that is regularly offered:

If you can see yourself doing anything else, pursue some other interest.

My problem with this advice is not so much what it says but with what it implies: If you can’t see yourself doing anything else, pursue the PhD! When stated outright, it usually comes with the appropriate qualifiers. Be realistic. It may not work out. It will cost lots of money. Etc. These caveats are appropriate, but they don’t mitigate the fundamental problem in the advice above:

If we only encourage students with a single-track education and narrow interests to pursue a PhD in biblical studies, we do a disservice to our discipline and to those whose education will not serve them well when they fail to land an academic career. 

Our discipline does not need more people who see the discipline of biblical studies through the lens of a traditional biblical studies education. What we need are English and history majors, psychologists and political theorists. What we don’t need are more Bible majors! The Bible majors, more often than not, are the ones who cannot see themselves doing anything else. The Bible may be the only subject they have studied in college and graduate school. Those with majors outside of biblical studies have expertise and career opportunities that lie outside biblical studies. It is these people who we discourage when we offer the advice above, but these are precisely the kinds of people we should be attracting to the guild. As the academy continues to embrace interdisciplinary thinking and tenure boards expect innovative scholarly careers, we need to invite students with eclectic interests to pursue biblical studies PhDs, not students with a single-track focus on the Bible!

Furthermore, we must keep in mind the lives of those who will pursue a biblical studies PhD. We know that most of these students will not end up with a tenure track or relatively stable academic posting. Bible majors or those who can’t imagine doing anything else do not need to be encouraged to pursue an education that only further narrows their career opportunities. Certainly PhDs can find work in non-traditional roles, but shouldn’t students with a narrowly focused Bible education be encouraged to broaden their education, interests, and career opportunities rather than spend four, six, or eight more years studying the Bible? Moreover, if we attract students with a broader education to spend a few years working on a PhD in biblical studies, they can find careers in other fields (if the tenure track doesn’t work out) and help infuse their biblical studies expertise in other disciplines and careers.

It is well-meaning advice, but we should no longer counsel students to pursue a PhD in biblical studies only if they cannot see themselves doing anything else; rather, we should advise students to pursue a PhD in biblical studies only if they have eclectic interests and alternative career opportunities.

Intertextuality in Biblical Studies: A Core Bibliography

Writing an “intertextual” analysis or using the “method of intertextuality” has become a veritable rite of passage for scholars in biblical studies, as though this were a well established critical practice in our discipline. Unfortunately this is not the case, and those who use the term are entering, often unwittingly, into an academic battleground for which they are ill equipped. Intertextuality is a contested term, and those who use it would do well to understand the nature of the controversy at hand. The literature on this subject is vast, spanning countless works in literary theory and biblical studies. Below, I have compiled a core bibliography that represents essential studies within the two fields.

Those whose interests concern literary allusions would do well to avoid the language of intertextuality altogether and focus on the more relevant theoretical literature.

Literary Theory

Saussure, F. de. “Nature of the Linguistic Sign,” and “Immutability and Mutability of the Sign.” In Course in General Linguistics. Translated by W. Baskin. 65-70, 71-78.  New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

Bakhtin, M. M. “Discourse in the Novel.” In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by M. Holquist. Translated by C. Emerson and M. Holquist. 259-422. University of Texas Press Slavic Series 1. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Kristeva, J. “The Bounded Text,” and “Word, Dialogue, and Novel.” In Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, edited by L. S. Roudiez, translated by T. Gora, A. Jardine, and L. S. Roudiez, 36–63, 64-91. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

———. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by M. Walker. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984, 59-60.

Barthes, R. “The Death of the Author.” In Image, Music, Text, translated by S. Heath, 142–48. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Culler, J. “Presupposition and Intertextuality.” Modern Language Notes 91 (1976): 1380–96, reprinted in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, 100–18. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Clayton, J., and E. Rothstein. “Figures in the Corpus: Theories of Influence and Intertextuality.” In Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History, 3–36. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Biblical Studies

van Wolde, E. “Trendy Intertextuality?” In Intertextuality in Biblical Writings: Essays in Honour of Bas van Iersel, edited by S. Draisma, 43–49. Kampen: Kok, 1989.

Hatina, T. R. “Intertextuality and Historical Criticism in New Testament Studies: Is There a Relationship.” Biblical Interpretation 7, no. 1 (1999): 28–43.

Tull, P. K. “Intertextuality and the Hebrew Scriptures.” Currents in Research: Biblical Studies 8, no. 1 (2000): 59–90.

Miller, G. D. “Intertextuality in Old Testament Research.” Currents in Biblical Research 9, no. 3 (2010): 283–309.

Moore, S. D., and Y. Sherwood. The Invention of the Biblical Scholar: A Critical Manifesto. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011.

Barton, J. “Déjà Lu: Intertextuality, Method or Theory?” In Reading Job Intertextually, edited by K. Dell and W. Kynes. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 574. New York: T & T Clark, 2013.

What has Atlanta to do with Washington?

While rereading Samuel Sandmel’s article, “Parallelomania” (JBL 81.1 [1962], 13), I was struck by a line I found particularly poignant given ongoing events in Washington D. C.

Someday some cultural historian might want to study a phenomenon in our Society of Biblical Literature. Two hundred years ago Christians and Jews and Roman Catholics and Protestants seldom read each other’s books, and almost never met together to exchange views and opinions on academic matters related to religious documents. Even a hundred years ago such cross-fertilization or meeting was rare. In our ninety-seventh meeting we take it as a norm for us to read each other’s writings and to meet together, debate with each other, and agree or disagree with each other in small or large matters of scholarship. The legacy from past centuries, of misunderstanding and even of animosity, has all but been dissolved in the framework of our organization. Would that humanity at large could achieve what has been achieved in our Society.

Check Your Sources!

It is frustrating when one stumbles upon a good quote, only to discovering a dubious attribution. Nijay Gupta writes about his recent discovery—an apocryphal G. K. Chesterton quote. Gupta discovered the innocent ruse because, in his own words, “I try to be a respectable scholar.” Indeed, you would think that checking your sources would be a fundamental tenant in the life of all scholars.

You would be wrong.

In an article published in the most recent issue of the Bulletin for Biblical Research, “The Ethics of Inclusion: The גר and the אזרח in the Passover to Yhwh” (23.2 [2013]: 155-66), I conclude with a quote often attributed to Hermann Cohen, a 19th-century Jewish philosopher:

The alien was to be protected, not because he was a member of one’s family, clan, religious community, or people; but because he was a human being. In the alien, therefore, man discovered the idea of humanity.

Having seen this quote in numerous studies, including one Anchor Bible commentary, you would think the source of the quote would be easy to locate. Again, you would be wrong. I spent the better part of the day tracking this quote down at the library using both digital and print media. Eventually I was force to resort to two interlibrary loan requests before I confirmed to my own satisfaction its apocryphal origins. Trying to be a respectable scholar, I included this footnote:

To my knowledge, the first attribution of this quotation to Hermann Cohen was made by J. H. Hertz in The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation, and Commentary (London: Soncino, 1937) 313. The quotation does not appear in the original publication of the Exodus commentary; Exodus (Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation, and Commentary; London: Oxford University Press, 1930) 259. Hertz generally references Cohen’s “Juedische Schriften” and “Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums” as works he consulted in preparation of the commentary. The quotation captures well Cohen’s sentiments from the latter work in the chapter entitled “The Discovery of Man as Fellowman,” though it does not contain the quotation itself; Religion of Reason Out of Sources of Judaism (trans. S. Kaplan; 2nd ed.; American Academy of Religion Text and Translation Series 7; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995) 113–43, particularly pp. 125–28. Unfortunately, Hertz is not more specific about the provenance of the quotation, and I am unable to verify its authenticity.

The moral of the story is simple. Check your sources!

Is Evangelical Scholarship Academically Rigorous?

If you have clicked through to read a blog post raising a question about the academic rigor of evangelical scholarship, chances are good you already have your own answer to the question. But I recognize that such a polarizing question requires many nuances, qualifiers, and subtleties. For example, are we talking about American evangelicalism or its British variety? Are we talking about the “Big-tent” model of Fuller Seminary or the more exclusionary version championed by certain high-profile so-called “evangelical intellectuals?”

I want to focus specifically on two dissertations turned “academic” monographs recently published by Wipf and Stock, a publisher with a growing reputation for publishing books of uneven quality. Of course, this unevenness might be expected when a publishing house that employs 25 people publishes 60 books in one month (July) with the entire production being done in-house. With these numbers, I’d expect the quality of their published books to reflect the variable quality of their authors, not their overworked editors.

The first book is Tracy J. McKenzie’s Idolatry in the Pentateuch: An Innertextual Strategy. Sven Petry of Georg-August-Universität Göttingen recently reviewed the book in RBL, and his extensive critique at the conclusion of his review speaks volumes. He begins saying, “I must admit that I am not sure how to evaluate this volume.” This is never a good sign. He summarizes the book’s contents again, this time with a focus on things that academically are either unjustified, uninteresting, or already well established. He also mentions the lack of sufficient editing. (Wipf and Stock take note!)

He then lays down the gauntlet:

Further, I suppose I have difficulties understanding and valuing McKenzie’s arguments because I come from a different world and speak a different language—and here I do not think in terms of geography. What I read shows me how large the gap between my notion of academic critical scholarship and McKenzie’s evangelical ideas are. Although I consider myself “critical,” I (as many other critical scholars) do believe that the final shape of the biblical text does matter. In this regard I fully consent to the opening sentence of chapter 1: “A central concern for Old Testament theology is an understanding of the final shape of the canon” (27). But while I regard a concept of the stages of textual growth as beneficial to this understanding, McKenzie’s concept of authorship that equalizes “author” and “composer” (49–50) sweeps away the value of any likely textual development prior to the final shape.

Petry raises an important point that often goes unrecognized by evangelical scholars who eschew historical criticism. Nonevangelical critical scholars can be just as enthusiastic about the final shape of the biblical text as an evangelical scholar. The difference between these and evangelical scholars is that critical scholars take seriously the claim that this is the final shape of the biblical text. Critical scholars acknowledge and examine both earlier and later forms of the text. Many evangelicals believe the “final shape of the biblical text” is the only shape—the only shape that matters or the only shape that has ever existed.

But Petry is not finished. He then raises the question of the function of “innertextuality” in this study. Now I should mention that I am writing a dissertation on “intertextuality,” and I argue most biblical scholars who use this term, evangelical or otherwise, are guilty of engaging in a practice that is un-academic. What I found to be interesting are the religiously motivated ends to which McKenzie so casually wielded this unwieldy nominalization.

Third, I simply do not get the point of “innertextuality.” If innertextuality actually does not say much more than that two texts are intentionally connected, that is, somehow related, the term does not contribute anything new and therefore is dispensable.  Following McKenzie’s notion and terminology, the presence of “innertexts” should raise questions of tradition and dependence. But in fact innertextuality is presented as if it was the answer. I can hardly avoid the impression that the term’s purpose is to provide a category for observations that in the critical realm would raise questions McKenzie refuses to answer. As he presupposes the Pentateuch as a “unified textual work, the direction of dependence is not necessary to know” (50). Therefore, while McKenzie’s book may have its value within the evangelical realm, from the perspective of critical, that is, academic, biblical scholarship, it is not necessary to read.

Again, I want to stress that “intertextuality” as it occurs most frequently in biblical studies is a problematic term. It often serves as a one-size-fits-all academic signifier for a theoretically and/or methodologically under-developed idea. But I think Petry is on to something when he observes that McKenzie’s use of it allows him to sidestep tradition- and source-critical questions.

The second book I want to consider was written by Deuk-il Shin, The Ark of Yahweh in Redemptive History: A Revelatory Instrument of Divine Attributes. (I do not know why the advertised subtitle departs from the subtitle on the picture of the book’s cover.) David G. Firth of St. John’s College (Nottingham, UK) reviewed this book recently in RBL. Like Petry, he has concerns about the “theological position” of the book.

It is clear from the above summary that Shin is operating from a very conservative theological position, and this impacts the whole work. The book’s strength is that it shows that a consistent reading of the ark across the Old Testament is possible and that traditio-historical interpretations are not necessarily required. That is, a synchronic reading of the text can present a coherent interpretation of the ark. But in a sense, that is also its weakness. It is because Shin starts with this as a presupposition that we do not really get to see substantial arguments that show that his approach is a better interpretation of the data. This concern particularly emerges in his reading of the historical texts that discuss the ark where, beyond the importance of reading the Bible from the perspective of Reformed theology, we do not really encounter a clear method for showing how these texts reveal the aspects of Yahweh’s character that he suggests. In the end, Shin’s conclusions present his presuppositions in more detail than noted at the outset, but his conclusions are still his presuppositions. So, while his conclusions might be correct, and there is an attractive degree of coherence to his reading, the book lacks the methodological rigor that would establish them as probable.

Firth’s assessment intrigues me for a couple of reasons. Having published numerous books with InterVarsity Press, an evangelical publishing house, Firth operates within evangelicalism. This criticism does not come from outside evangelicalism. (Perhaps I have framed the question in my title in too binary a mode.) Furthermore, Firth does not seem altogether opposed to Shin’s conclusions; rather, he questions the foundation upon which these conclusions are established.

Notice how Firth distinguishes between presuppositions and “substantial arguments.” When critical scholars talk to many evangelicals today, the conversation will often arrive at the question of presuppositions. The idea that the critical scholar begins with problematic assumptions becomes a kind of trump card, a way of prematurely ending the conversation or academic debate. Firth argues, to the contrary, that presuppositions must be established by methodological (i.e., academic) rigor. Otherwise, all one has to go on are one’s presuppositions. Presuppositions alone are simply not the basis of a rigorous academic approach to the Bible.

The answer to the question of this post depends on one’s perspective. I would suggest that evangelical scholars need to take seriously the critique of these two recent monographs if they intend for their work to participate in the theoretical and methodological rigor of academe.