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.

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.

How to Write a Sentence

Make a sentence of your own in your head. Don’t write it down. Any kind of sentence will do, but keep it short. Rearrange it. Reword it. Then throw it out. Make another. Rearrange. Reword. Discard. You can do this anywhere, at any time. Do it again and again, without inscribing anything. Experiment with rhythm. Let the sentences come and go. Evaluate them, play with them, but don’t cling to them. If you find a sentence you really like, let it go and look for the next one. The more you do this, the easier it will be to remember the sentences you want to keep. Better yet, you’ll know that you can replace any sentence you lose with one that’s just as good.

There’s a good reason for doing this all in your head. You’re learning to be comfortable in that dark, cavernous place. It’s not so frightening. There’s language there, and you’re learning to play with it on your own without the need to snatch at words and phrases for an assignment. And here’s another good reason. A sentence you don’t write down is a sentence you feel free to change. Inscribe it, and you’re chained to it for life. That, at least, is how many writers act. A written sentence possesses a crippling inertia. ~ Verlyn Klinkenborg

See more from Klinkenborg and biblioblogger Charles Halton here.

Who Said Jews Aren’t Interested in Biblical Theology?

Earlier this year I highlighted a popular essay by Jon Levenson entitled, “Why Jews are Not Interested in Biblical Theology.” There have been a few who have taken issue with Levensons claims, even while recognizing the many significant contributions he brings to the biblical theological discussion.

Ehud Ben Zvi has written what is, in my estimation, an equally significant essay, “Constructing the Past: The Recent History of Jewish Biblical Theology.”

This chapter explores how and why a diverse group of Jewish “biblicists” reached the mentioned widespread agreement [that Jews are not interested in Biblical theology], and, in particular, I would focus on the ways in which the construction of the past (and the social memory that it creates) shaped and reflected in this consensus is related to particular social and ideological contingencies. (34)

An offprint of the essay is available here. It is included in the volume edited by Isaac Kalimi, Jewish Bible Theology. You can find my review of the book in The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.

SBL Student Policy Change (Singular!)

From the 2011 council statement just released:

The guidelines for student participation in the Annual Meeting are slightly modified from those announced last year:

  • All first-time presenters (full and student members of SBL) must submit the paper to-be-read to the program unit chair(s) during the call for papers period.
  • Student members of SBL may participate in two sessions as presider, panelist, or respondent but are limited to only one paper presentation.

I assume these are the only changes we are to anticipate. If so, then it looks as though the only new restriction is the limitation to present a single paper as opposed to two. I suppose there are some who would prefer greater restrictions on student presenters, but compared with the original emendations to the policy as it pertains to students, I believe this is a major improvement.

We owe our thanks to the Student Advisory Board who made our concerns heard and to John Kutsko and the SBL Council for listening to and acting upon our concerns!

Jacob and the Divine Trickster – A Recommendation

I was pleased to have the opportunity to review for the Bulletin of Biblical Research my friend and fellow blogger John Anderson’s book, Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and YHWH’s Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle (whew—what a title!), and I am happy to recommend the book (see another review here).

To state it simply, John has read the Jacob story. This may not seem like much of a compliment, but John demonstrates in his book that too many people in reading the Jacob cycle read an interpreted Bible, the Bible as it has been interpreted and handed down to us by our culture and interpretive traditions. Reading John’s book alongside the Hebrew text of the Jacob cycle made me feel like I was reading what the text is actually getting at for the first time. If, in your reading of the Jacob cycle, you have encountered an individual whose deceptive tendencies mar his character and who ultimately needs to be straightened out by God (in a divine wrestling match, no less), you might consider acquiring a copy of John’s book and giving it a read. Discovering John’s (and Jacob’s) “divine trickster” may actually end up straightening you out!



USDA or YHWH? My SBL Paper

My SBL paper, “USDA or YHWH: Pursuing a Divinely Inspired Diet,” has been posted online for those interested in attending the Contextual Biblical Interpretation sessions to read in advance. I am announcing it here should it be of interest to those not attending the session or not attending SBL.