Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"It's the End of Biblical Studies as We Know It, and Chris Heard Doesn't Feel Fine"

Chris Heard has begun reading Hector Avalos' The End of Biblical Studies, and he says he's a bit scared of it:
"Hector's thesis is that the Bible is—despite all the rhetoric to the contrary—irrelevant (and maybe even harmful) to life in today's world, but biblical scholars 'conspire' (in a sense) with religious and media organizations to keep an illusion of relevance alive."
I pretty much agree with this, but like Avalos I'm a secular type, so that's easy enough to say. I should note, however, to help assuage Chris' fears, that there are committed Christians who come close to sharing these sentiments. Take one of my favorites, Dale Allison:
"What can historical Jesus research do for us? Well, maybe this will surprise everyone, but my view is: very little... Too many expect too much from historical Jesus research. We also have ethics professors, theologians, and philosophers. How come? Why do we need them if historical Jesus research gives us our answers? We need them because it doesn't... I truly think the big issues are best addressed by philosophers, scientific theorists, theologians, poets, and novelists, not historians. Cut my own throat there, didn't I?"
I don't think Dale has ever claimed that the historical Jesus is completely irrelevant, but at least largely so. So don't be scared, Chris. Believers in the faith are warming to the idea of the bible's irrelevance as much as the infidels.

Here's how I put the matter in my interview at biblioblogs.com, from the cultural angle, my point being that the bible will never lose its vibrancy for all of its irrelevancy:
"The most fascinating thing about the bible is that it comes from a culture which many of us find alien and unpalatable (honor-shame), and that it can provide only limited support for modern agendas, however liberal or conservative. That's what makes the book so vibrant on its own right, even to me as a non-Christian. Ironically, I find it easy to warm to the biblical writers in all their flawed and convincing personalities. They were struggling to make sense of the world as they knew it, sometimes commendably, sometimes not. Funny thing is, I don't know that we do much better than they did."
We can still take inspiration from that which is obsolete or irrelevant. Now I want to play that R.E.M. song...

UPDATE: See Problems with the SBL and Does Theology Bring Death to Biblical Studies? for more on Avalos' book.


Blogger Danny Zacharias said...

I absolutely love Dale Allison's work, but I would have to disagree a bit with him (and you) about this because it seems to be coming at it from an "all or nothing" perspective. Of course historical jesus studies on its own would do very little. I think the same thing can be said of theology left on its own, or ethics by itself. The point is, or should be, that each contributes to the dialogue and discussion about whatever it may be, not that one particular branch of study tries to anwer all the big questions.

Neither should the model be biblical studies hands the baton to theologians, they pass it on to ethics people, they pass it on to...... this relay race doesn't help either. It ought to be a dialogue together, like spokes of wheel. Each contributes its part.

Of course historical jesus studies can't do it all alone, but neither do I think "all the anwers" can be adequately handled without the input of biblical scholars.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What precisely would it mean for the Bible to be "relevant" to life in today's world? That is, if Avalos contends that it is irrelevant, then how would today's world have to be different in order for the Bible to be relevant to life in it?

It seems to me that a text is "relevant" (at least as far as scholarship is concerned) precisely to the extent that folks are interested in it, and by that standard the Bible is very much relevant. Whether or not folks are taking from the Bible that which its authors intended to convey, the fact that (for instance) the Discovery Channel could get one of its largest viewerships ever by running a documentary about an ossuary with the name "Jesus son of Joseph" indicates that this book is still interesting to the masses of television viewers. What other standard does the book need to meet in order to qualify as "relevant"?

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Greg asked:

What precisely would it mean for the Bible to be "relevant" to life in today's world?

See Chris Heard's post: "'Irrelevant' here refers to a biblical concept or practice that is no longer viewed as valuable, applicable, and/or ethical."

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Biblical studies in general, New Testament scholarship in particular, and the historical Jesus within that context are worthy and often fascinating fields of study in their own right, but are not crucial to my religious faith (Methodist, believer in John Wesley's "quadrilateral") and even less so to most of my coreligionists. History, particularly antiquity, is the past imagined, to a large extent. A few surviving accounts, manipulated by many hands, tend to dominate the story. Other disciplines, even scientific, rarely provide decisive help -- witness the "minimalist" assault on the Old Testament. Anyone who takes up the search for the historical Jesus with high expectations is doomed to disappointment. The cynic would quote Nietzche: "In truth there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross."

Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Irrelevant' here refers to a biblical concept or practice that is no longer viewed as valuable, applicable, and/or ethical.

Fair enough. As Humpty Dumpty said "when I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less." Still and all, isn't Dr Avalos' rather a strained definition of "irrelevant" in the above? Is that really what most competant Anglophones would mean by the word if they were to make the claim "the Bible is irrelevant"? It seems to me that most of the force of this bold claim flows from its rather idiosyncratic definition of "relevance." Take that away and the claim simply collapses into the much more pedestrian "among those most likely to read the Bible, few still live like the ancient Hebrews," a claim far too anodyne even to inspire much interest, let alone fear.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matthew 6:25-33
Romans 8:31-39
Job 38-39
The Bible at the top of its form, passages that are summits of Western literature at its most resplendent and revealing.

But still, we know also that “might makes right” is not too compelling a solution to the problem of evil, and that Jesus and Paul were riveted by the prospect of the replacement of their troublesome and frustrating world, so badly ruled by humans, by another, troublefree and fulfilling, ruled by God or his designee. “Consider the lilies ….” at some times and on some occasions imparts excellent advice. At any time it reminds us how compelling was this man Jesus seized by the vision of a new and splendid world breaking into this one through its every seam, and with what eloquence he communicated this vision. But we can hardly take as probative for our world an argument premised on its imminent supersession by another. In the same way, the Lord’s answer from the whirlwind is one of the very greatest moments in all of literature. (“When the trumpet sounds, it says ‘Aha!’/From a distance it smells the battle,/the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.”) But again, “sit down and shut up, I’m bigger than you” isn’t much of an argument.

It would be puerile to dismiss as irrelevant—as inconsiderable and useless—the Bible as it has suffused our thought and shaped our yearnings over the centuries. But it’s patently absurd, and abusive to the evident intent and purpose of scripture, to treat Genesis I as an attempt to anticipate Darwin’s inquiry into the origin of species. It’s a similar mistake to read Job as advancing a theological/moral argument or Jesus as advancing a discursive argument of any sort. Still, we would suffer a great loss if, seeking an argument and finding none, we put aside the sermon on the mount and the answer from the whirlwind, which are instructive as to a certain slant on perennial questions, and invaluable as definitive renderings of a worthy answer to inexorable questions.


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