The Bible of an Evangelical

According to Scot McKnight (who is speaking descriptively at this point, I believe):

When it all comes down to it, ‘evangelical’ is about getting saved, and explaining all of theology through the lens of salvation. When it comes to reading the Bible, everything is read about how to get people saved, even if there is hardly an Old Testament text to quote, which is perhaps why the word ‘biblicism’ no longer applies to American Evangelicalism in a generic sense, which is also why American Evangelicals, mostly don’t need the Old Testament. Genesis 1 to 2. Add Genesis 3. And you can skip to Romans 3. That is the Bible of an evangelical.

This echoes a concern of mine laid out in a previous post.

Why RBL Should Be Utilizing Fledgling Scholars

I frequent the RBL site and volunteer to review those volumes most germane to my areas of research. (Yes, I know you must be at least A.B.D. before you can review for RBL, which I am not. More on that below.) Earlier this summer I volunteered to review the recent collection of essays edited by Kathrine Dell, Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament: God and Humans in Dialogue. I was reading this book as a part of an independent study on Old Testament ethics, and thought it would be a happy coincidence if I could review it in conjunction with my study. Naturally, I was disappointed (though not surprised) when I learned that once again my request to volunteer was cordially rejected.

As you might imagine, I was interested to see who was selected to review the book and to compare their evaluation of it with my own. Today, RBL posted Walter Kaiser’s review of the book. In many respects, Walter Kaiser is a logical choice to review a book on Old Testament ethics. His own book, Toward Old Testament Ethics, was one of the earliest works devoted to the subject. He is a senior scholar with a prolific pen and a respectable career in Evangelical institutions. While many of his own books have been reviewed in RBL, this is the first time (as best I can determine from the RBL search engine) he has reviewed for this venue. The editorial board for RBL made a rational choice in selecting Kaiser for this review.

That having been said, the review is a disaster. After introducing the conference from which the papers in the book originate (in what is, I might add, one of the larger paragraphs in the review!), we encounter the first signs that the reviewer has given up before he has even begun:

As with all multiple-author books, it is difficult to give an in-depth or an even review of all fourteen authors in the space allotted.

I think this is a cop-out. RBL does not limit their reviewers to 1200 words (the mark Kaiser’s review falls just shy of), nor are they unwilling to publish lengthy reviews of multi-author volumes. Late last year/earlier this year, they published two reviews of the Texts@Contexts Genesis volume, each of which topped 10 pages! Ethical and Unethical is equally as significant and the contributors are top scholars in their fields. I simply cannot believe that Kaiser exhausted his “allotted space” in the recent review.

Kaiser proceeds to summarize each essay in one to four sentence summaries. In only one of those summaries do Kaiser’s own opinions regarding the value of the content emerge: “Carol Dray, now deceased, has one of the most interesting chapters on. . . .” (It is ironic that he writes only one sentence about this “most interesting chapter,” the only one-sentence summary in the review!) Even this one comment is hardly illuminating.

What of the value of the summaries themselves? Consider the first one:

Robert Gordon (Regius Professor of Hebrew, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of St. Catharine’s College) has the opening chapter, in which he focuses on the debate between James Barr and Walter Moberly as to whether God or the serpent in the garden of Eden spoke the truth, when threatening death in Gen 2:17. Gordon suggests that God may have been speaking metaphorically rather than literally in Gen 2:17 or that God may have mitigated his own threat later. Instead, Gordon wants to shift the debate away from the topic of death to that of wisdom and immortality.

This is a less-than-accurate representation of the contents of the article. It is Barr and Moberly who have advocated that Genesis 2:17 is best explained in light of divine mitigation and metaphorical death, respectively. What Gordon does in his essay is to lay out the issues involved, challenge a number of assumptions, and clarify some misunderstandings between the two scholars (e.g. Barr misreads Moberly and confuses metaphorical death with spiritual death). He concludes that it is God, not the serpent, who is a truth-teller, thus siding with Moberly (however cautiously).

Why would Kaiser poorly represent the contents of the essay? Simply because he is not summarizing Gordon’s essay! How do I know this? Kathrine Dell, the editor of the volume, penned an introduction in which she summarized each essay, and Kaiser is actually summarizing Dell’s summary! After providing a much longer and more informative synopsis of the contents, Dell concludes her summary of Gordon’s essay saying:

The possibility of God speaking metaphorically rather than literally in Gen 2:17 is raised, as well as the idea that God may have mitigated his threat at a later point. Gordon wishes to shift the emphasis of the Eden narrative away from death as the central issue, towards the key elements of wisdom and immortality.

In the first sentence, Kaiser’s summary converts Dell’s passive “is raised” into an active “Gordon suggests” (which turns an ambiguous statement into an inaccurate one). In the second, he exchanges Dell’s “Gordon wishes” with “Gordon wants.” The similarities here are disturbing. But this is not all.

When Dell summarizes in the introduction of her book the essay she contributed, she concludes with these words “Whether God behaves ethically or not in this context probably comes down to perspective—by human standards of justice the answer is that God is probably being unethical here, but who are we mere mortals to judge God?” Now compare this with what Kaiser writes, “Her conclusion is that God probably acted unethically in Job, but who are we mortals to judge God?” That Kaiser is here summarizing Dell’s own summary of her essay is incontrovertible in light of the fact that this latter phrase, “who are we (mere) mortals to judge God?” does not appear anywhere in her essay—it only appears in her summary in the introduction to the volume!

Elsewhere it is less/unclear where/if Kaiser is dependent on Dell’s summaries. His summaries are consistently shorter and less thorough than Dell’s, and he tends to use key phrases/words that Dell likewise includes in her summaries. For example, Dell and Kaiser both use Lipton’s phrase from the introduction of her essay “handle with care,” though it does not occur anywhere else in her essay. In summarizing Marlow’s essay, both refer to Isa 34 as a “key text.” While Isa 34 is a key text in her essay, Marlow never refers to it as such.

I cannot prove that Kaiser did not read the book he reviewed, and whether he did or did not is actually of little significance. (It is possible to review a book well that one has not read exhaustively, though this should probably be the exception, not the rule.) My concern is with the fact that (parts of) his review is (are) nothing more than a summary of the book’s introduction, itself the original work of a scholar providing a synopsis of the contents of the book. In at least one place where Kaiser is summarizing the summary, he misconstrues the contents of an article. Moreover, some of the language of his summary seems dependent on Dell’s own language, and as such he appears to my eyes to be flirting with plagiarism. (How ironic that he is reviewing a book on ethics!)

The point of this post, however, is not to accuse Kaiser of plagiarism. I hesitate to use the word because I fear it could distract from the purpose of this post. Whatever Kaiser has done, it is in poor taste and produced a lackluster review. But there is one element I have left to address—his conclusion.

Each chapter comes with a selected bibliography. Due to the subject matter and the wide variety of offerings, this volume will no doubt attract both advocates and those who feel the negative note is not altogether consistent with all of the biblical evidence. Nevertheless, it is still welcomed as another fresh signal that the subject matter of biblical ethics is enjoying a fresh comeback. It is hoped that these essays will spark many others to join the conversation.

In essence, “Some people will like this book. Others will not. This subject is clearly in vogue!” This much could be said of nearly every multi-authored book published! There is no evaluation of the contents; no assessment of how successful the book is at allowing the Old Testament to speak for itself about is characters, both human and divine. This is a review unworthy of the name. Anyone interested in the book would be much better served by reading the book’s introduction on Google Books. Given that the introduction of the book already contains a thorough synopsis of its contents, Kaiser should have mentioned this and then moved on to engage the strengths and weaknesses of the book, if not of the individual articles. But I digress.

RBL’s policies state:

a. When a review copy becomes available, an RBL editor first offers it for review to a scholar with recognized expertise in the subject matter of the book. Editors repeat this process until at least two such scholars have been offered a book for review.
b. If two editor-identified scholars decline the invitation to review a book, an editor may offer the book for review to a volunteer.
c. Only SBL members who have earned a terminal degree (e.g., Ph.D.) or are in the dissertation stage of such studies are eligible to volunteer to review a book for RBL. Volunteers are required to state their credentials qualifying them to review in RBL’s online volunteer form (http://bookreviews.org/volunteer.asp).

I find it terribly frustrating as a student ineligible to review for RBL to see their policies cater to senior scholars who, from time to time, produce mediocre (or ethically questionable) reviews. Would those of us currently ineligible really produce as many or more poor reviews as are already being published by the eligible reviewers? (The internet is rife with complaints about sub-par RBL reviews. See one from me, here.) I doubt so. Fledgling scholars have something to prove, and as such they are motivated to take professional opportunities like publishing a review in RBL seriously. Moreover, as the SBL is re-envisioning their role in helping student members develop as scholars, why not encourage them to contribute reviews that help them develop and hone their skills of critical thinking, all while building their CV and contributing to their discipline. I think it is interesting that I was encouraged in my master’s program to develop the skills of writing book reviews alongside the skills of writing papers. Why does SBL and JBL believe us qualified to do the one, but RBL not believe us qualified to do the other? To add insult to injury, the RBL reviewers sometimes have difficulty finding reviewers for certain books (e.g. The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People: Essays in Honor of Elmer A. Martens published in 2009!), but even still they refuse to send it to someone like myself (PhD student with an emphasis in Old Testament Theology).

I am under no illusions that the RBL policies will change. So let me say this, to those of you who are eligible to review for RBL, please take it seriously. Some of us would appreciate having the opportunities you have. And to Walter Kaiser: If you aren’t going to read Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament for yourself, would you mind sending your copy to me? I’d like to have it.

Update

John Anderson describes in a comment below his own experiences as a younger scholar reviewing for RBL. They help to dispel some of my assumptions while confirming others. Give it a look!

Review of Old Testament Wisdom Literature by Bartholomew and O’Dowd

I’d like to thank Adrianna Wright for sending me a copy of Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction. The authors Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’Dowd have produced a fine, thoroughly theological volume investigating the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. There are many commendable things about this volume. It is a most attractive book, and the writing is engaging and down-to-earth. The contents represent evangelical scholarship at its finest. The authors are not afraid to allow the wisdom literature to take them to challenging places, but they are excellent guides for students and lay readers who journey with them.

Much ground is covered in this book. The first chapter introduces the concept of wisdom in the Old Testament, and the second chapter broadens the scope to that of the ancient world. Before diving into the wisdom books (chapters 4-9), the authors spend a chapter discussing poetry, its form and function. As the chapter title suggests, “The Poetry of Wisdom and the Wisdom of Poetry,” the authors emphasize the importance of poetry for our contemporary context: “Our modern age has tended to prefer facts and reason to imagination. Such an emphasis can misrepresent, underestimate, flatten and distort reality. . . . Poetry, in fact, is at its best an ethical way of preserving the mystery, ambiguity, power, tragedy and sublimity of our world” (69).

Each of the three wisdom books from the Old Testament are covered in two chapters. The first chapter provides a big picture of the book while the second chapter zooms in on a particular section of the book where wisdom is particularly prominent. Chapter 10 addresses the subject of wisdom from a Christian perspective, inquiring as to how we understand Jesus as the Wisdom of God (see Colossians 2:2-3). The chapter begins with an eye to the historical development of wisdom in Second Temple Judaism, and then progresses to a canonical survey of the New Testament and wisdom.

Chapter 11 synthesizes the wisdom corpus, outlining its most basic contours and most significant emphases. In particular, they outline a “character-consequence” nexus that I find much more suitable than the reductive “act-consequence” nexus. The authors also explore the perineal problem of Old Testament Theology, namely how to integrate the wisdom literature into a discipline whose structure is characteristically biased toward history. The role of the wisdom tradition in the theology of the church is the matter taken up in chapter 12 and is a suitable conclusion to the book. Each chapter concludes with a recommended reading list, often sub-catagorized based on the difficulty of the recommended literature. There is both an author and Scripture index (including Apocryphal literature), and the editors wisely choose to use footnotes and not endnotes–hooray!

While this has thus far been a very positive review, I did find myself at odds with the authors on a number of points. I will only mention two here. First, I think they get Qohelet wrong (though I am glad they recognize the “Solomonic Guise” and do not try to maintain the hopeless case of Solomonic authorship). They outline well the challenge of interpreting this book, and I am pleased to see them adopt an explicitly dialogical approach to this work. This aspect will prove challenging to those in more conservative evangelical circles, which is why I say this is evangelical scholarship at its finest! However, their take on the narrative dynamics of Qohelet’s character does not persuade me. They argue that Qohelet starts out wrong because his epistemology is wrong–he doesn’t begin with the fear of Yahweh. Perhaps, but the carpe diem passages which represent for them the maturation of Qohelet’s wisdom are spread out throughout the book, and I do not as yet see any appreciable growth to them as the book progresses. Moreover, they place the carpe diem texts in “contradictory juxtaposition” to Qohelet’s hebel statements. Again, I am pleased to see language like “contradictory juxtaposition” in Evangelical Old Testament literature, but I disagree here. I would rather describe the relationship between the carpe diem texts and the hebel judgements as a “dialectical tension.” This is a matter of “both-and” not “either-or.”

My second point of contention is more deeply seated. The authors adopt a very polemical view of Israelite wisdom in the context of the ancient world. “While Israel’s poetic and wisdom writings look very much like those of her neighbors, the places where they differ are most important” (44). This assumption is pervasive in the book, and it is not particularly helpful. For example, I mentioned above that they view the carpe diem passages in Ecclesiastes as preferable to Qohelet’s hebel statements. It is, for them, the pinnacle of the theology of Ecclesiastes. What they don’t mention, however, is that this carpe diem notion is not unique to Qohelet, but can be found throughout the ancient Near East from Egypt to Mesopotamia. How do they reconcile the fact that the most significant aspect of Qohelet’s theology (to their minds) is a part of that which is not unique to Israel’s wisdom theology? Or, in their first chapter of the book of Job, they refer to George Steiner who said he could never imagine anyone, even Shakespeare, writing the speeches of God in Job. “There is something quite beyond human insight in them” (165). But what happens if we find literature in the ancient world that looks remarkably like the God speeches in Job, and if this literature is not Israelite? Will they lose their association with the divine because they evidence greater human and specifically non-Israelite involvement? This flirts with a God-of-the-Gaps  approach to inspiration that I find very problematic. Every culture has its own take on wisdom, and every culture is unique in some way or another. I simply cannot accept that God is encountered in Israel’s wisdom tradition most where that tradition is sui generous. This makes a mockery of wisdom’s association with creation (see Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament, 64-67).

I think this book would be helpful in conservative and/or Evangelical Christian university and seminary classrooms. It will push many in evangelical circles, and some on the other hand may feel held back. The tone is rather conversational, which adds length to the book. It makes the book engaging, but also longer than necessary if one is simply interested in the primary sources. More moderate to mainline institutions may prefer a less Evangelical more dense volume like Leo Perdue’s Wisdom and Creation: The Theology of Wisdom Literature and Wisdom Literature: A Theological History.

Disclaimer: I was not coerced or otherwise manipulated by IVP to offer the review above. It represents my genuine opinions.

Funny Quote of the Day

It is significant that hard-line groups such as the Restoration movement, a group within fundamentalist Christianity which seeks to legislate as much of the Old Testament as possible upon today’s world, confines this activity to the sphere of private morality.

“Ethical Experience in the Old Testament: Legislative or Communicative Rationality?” in Theory and Practice in Old Testament Ethics by John Rogerson, edited by M. Daniel Carroll R. (p 78)

I am aware that the tradition in which I was raised is not the only “Restoration movement” around (e.g. Mormons view their tradition through a similar lens), but ours is the one typically referred to by the “the Restoration movement” moniker (historians now use the less ideological “Stone-Campbell Movement”). Nevertheless, the idea that such a movement “seeks to legislate as much of the Old Testament as possible upon today’s world” has me wondering what Restoration movement he is talking about. The hallmark of our tradition is our ability to dismiss the relevance of the Old Testament for today’s world. I heard a preacher once say concerning New Testament Christians (i. e. those Christians who identify with the project of the “restoration” movement) that Psalm 150 could not be sung as a “Christian” hymn. Why? Because the New Testament does not authorize musical instruments! The arguments for such lines of thinking come from reading Col 2:14 as revealing that “the law [= the Old Testament] was nailed to the cross” or that Jesus not only fulfilled the law, but also abolished it. Needless to say, I’m not sure where Rogerson is getting his information from, but I’m categorizing this as a Theology FAIL!

The Ethics of Interpretation

Current discussions in the area of hermeneutical ethics force us to realize that a given biblical interpretation is ethical only if it was reached in a particular awareness concerning the factors that shaped its reading (such as its own presuppositions about the Bible itself), and there is a willingness to engage in dialogues with other communities that read the biblical texts differently and are impacted differently by conventional interpretations. As a result, if one of these criteria is absent, a plausible interpretation is not an ethical one. Today, when we have to recognize that anyone text can have different meanings, we must consider not just how meaning is derived from ancient biblical texts but why a particular meaning, among several plausible meanings, is chosen.

Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation by Cheryl B. Anderson (p 148)

Richard Briggs has devoted an entire book, The Virtuous Reader: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue, to the ethical virtues of the implied reader of the Bible. His thesis:

Implicit in the Old Testament’s handling of a wide range of moral and ethical categories, we find a rich and thought-provoking portrait (or perhaps series of portraits) of the kind of character most eagerly to be sought after, and this in turn is the implied character of one who would read these texts, especially one in search of their own purposes and values. (p 17)

Anderson and Briggs are coming at the ethics of interpretation from different perspectives. Yet both recognize that interpretation, divorced from certain virtues or considerations, is not complete. This does not mean such interpretations are necessarily exegetically flawed. Briggs will, however, go so far as to state that “all other things being equal, one who is morally virtuous is more likely to make wise judgments. An account of how one judges (epistemologically) finds congruence with an account of how one lives morally in other spheres” (p 24). He is here building off the epistemological reflections of Linda Zagsebski in Virtues of the Mind.

Anderson’s point is not to suggest we become moral exemplars before attempting to interpret the Bible, but rather that we be open and honest about what is motivating us to arrive at our particular interpretive conclusions. This can make the difference between an interpretation that is ethical and one that is not. Briggs specifically focuses on the virtues of humility, wisdom, trust, love, and receptivity. Perhaps the virtue of honesty could be added to his list of interpretive virtues in conjunction with Anderson’s concerns.

How to be a Better Biblical Scholar/Christian: On Actually Reading the Bible

When was the last time you read through the Bible? I must confess to having never actually read through the Bible, though I have listened to it through on audiobook, once. (Mind you, the earliest faith communities did not read the Bible, they listened to it read aloud.) With that admission, I am obviously not one of those who believes that reading through the entire Bible, particularly reading through it every year, is one of the higher Christian virtues, though I respect those who, like my parents, do it year after year.

Biblical scholars/enthusiasts can get away with not reading their Bibles, rather conveniently, by talking about the Bible and about how to read the Bible. I agree with Charles Halton, however, who in one of our recent discussions suggested that the scholarship of those who talk about the Bible, particularly how to read the Bible, tends to be less persuasive when they don’t actually read it (and this occurs more often than one might think). One can easily extend this observation to the transformation evident in the lives of those who talk about versus those who actually read the Bible.

In this respect, I appreciated the following observations from L. Gregory Jones who, in his essay “Formed and Transformed by Scripture: Character, Community, and Authority in Biblical Interpretation” in Character and Scripture: Moral Formation, Community, and Biblical Interpretation, writes:

American Christians have increasingly lost a familiarity with ruled patterns for reading the Bible, the kind of familiarity that shapes people’s lives and, at its best, enlivens a scriptural imagination. Indeed, this loss is at least in part a consequence of an increasing preoccupation with questions of biblical method and biblical authority. As Christians in modernity have increasingly argued about the appropriate method or methods for biblical study, as well as the perceived status of Scripture’s authority, we have failed to attend adequately to the task of actually reading the texts themselves. . . . Further, our loss of familiarity with Scripture is also a cause of our preoccupation with biblical method and biblical authority. The less familiar we are with the texts of Scripture in all their diversity and complexity, the easier it is for us to remain at a more generalized level of argument about whether Scripture has authority or not — or, more accurately put, what kind of authority diverse people are willing to ascribe to Scripture. (20)

Jones goes on to point out that this preoccupation is “morally convenient.” He cites a United Methodist Bishop, Kenneth Carder, who pointedly writes: “It is much easier to argue about evolution and creation than it is to live as though this is God’s world. Or, debating whether a ‘great fish’ really swallowed Jonah is far less costly and risky than acknowledging that God loves our enemies as much as God loves us.”

Methods of biblical interpretation are fascinating and, for biblical scholars and serious Bible students, a necessary object of study, but they are not (or should not be) an end unto themselves.

SBL Student Policies Suspended

The recent changes to the SBL student policy for paper submissions have been suspended for one year. I think this is a wise move considering the number of well-reasoned critiques that arose in response to what seemed rather abrupt changes at the end of last year. John Kutsko’s letter to SBL Student members reads:

Dear Student Member:

The Executive Committee of Council met on 12 January 2011 to discuss concerns over the recent policies regarding student participation in the Society’s Annual Meeting.  The policies that were announced in November 2010 required all students without a doctoral degree to submit to the Program Unit Chair the full text of the paper they intended to read and limited the number of sessions student can participate in (as panelist, presenter, and respondent) to one.

The action taken by the Executive Committee of Council, effective immediately , is to postpone the implementation of these policies and to undertake additional discussion of these matters at the Spring 2011 Council meeting. This action thereby sets aside these requirements and restrictions until 2012, pending further review.

I want personally to thank the members of the Student Advisory Board and the network of OSRs for the conversations we have had concerning these matters. They are active advocates for student interests. Please do continue these conversations with me or with representatives on SAB. SAB will provide a report directly to Council in April.

On behalf of Council, we look forward to receiving your suggestions and proposals for discussion and review, and we are especially grateful for your active participation.

Sincerely,

John F. Kutsko

Executive Director

Society of Biblical Literature