Getting the PIP and the Deep Bible project

Christian Smith (American sociologist of religion, who coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic Deism”)  published The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture with Brazos Press back in 2011. His list of ten characteristics of “biblicism”1 was recently cited by Scott McKnight as part of a brief affirmation of the thesis of the book. This made it onto my Facebook screen just a few days after we spent Saturday recording for the first episode of Deep Bible.

Several Evangelical scholars reviewed Smith’s book largely to rebut his claim that these ten features are characteristic of Evangelical (or at least of academic Evangelical) Bible reading. Though they have also criticised his thesis.2 This thesis considers the ten marks of Biblicism in the light of the phenomenon Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (hence forth “PIP”) claiming that this fact of multiple readings makes these tenets impossible.

Getting the PIP (pervasive interpretive pluralism)

This post is not a review, or even a notice, of Smith’s book (I have not read it) nor is it a review or response to his critics, rather it is my response to his list, in the light of recording the first episode of Deep Bible. You see one of the core problems with the Bible today for Evangelicals (and other Bible-centred believers, like Baptists) is PIP. You do not have to look far to get the PIP, perhaps all the current (and past) hot button topics among Christians reveal that interpretative pluralism is indeed pervasive. Take the discussion between “Egalitarian” and “Complementarian” camps, they read the same Bible passages, but come to different conclusions. Even the arguments over “gay marriage”, are fueled by different hermeneutics leading to different conclusions.3

Therein lies the rub at least for those who live and have their being in church as well as breathing the more rarefied air of the academy. For, in church (at least in the pews)4 most or all of the terrible ten are believed as gospel truth, and hermeneutics is either an unknown concept or code for “attempting to avoid the plain sense of Scripture”.

Hence the importance of PIP for Deep Bible episode one.5 My contribution offers two strands of practical everyday response to PIP.

Radios and telephones

First, I suggest we need to recognise and distinguish two ways in which God uses Scripture to communicate with us, let’s call them the radio and the telephone. Sometimes the Holy Spirit uses a Bible passage (or even verse or phrase) to give a particular message to a particular person (or group). When this happens it is a bit like the Spirit inspiring Jeremiah with the message that God watches over his word to fulfill it (Jer 1:12) that message came from a pun on the Hebrew word for an almond branch (Jer 1:11). The message has nothing (at all) to do with almonds or branches or trees. God just used the (bad?) pun as stimulus. When God gave Barbara and I a comforting message about our move to New Zealand (following the traumatic shock of being evacuated from Congo and losing contact with so many of our friends and colleagues) that comforting message had nothing to do with the message of the book of Jonah, but God used the familiar story to make his point – and, as with Jeremiah’s pun, it worked for us. That experience is God making a personal telephone call.

OTOH when God inspired the writers of Scripture to reveal truth about the world and especially about its Maker, Sustainer and Redeemer that message, like a radio broadcast is intended for anyone who has the equipment and listens in.

Failure to distinguish these two sorts of meaning leads to much of the most pernicious misuse of Scripture, and so is responsible for much of the PIP that we get today. For we live at a time that prefers the immediacy of “the spirit”6 to the work of rightly handling the word of life.

Let’s just agree to disagree

Another cultural tendency also impacts the PIP. Tolerance  is a virtue (it is perhaps both the most important, under practiced, and yet over-rated virtue today). In the face of multiple interpretations of Scripture this core virtue of the pomo world kicks in, and we find ourselves tempted to “agree to disagree“. Agreeing to disagree is fine and desirable when we have really discussed, understand where the other is coming from, still respect them, yet despite this disagree.

It is not so fine or desirable when it is almost our first response to differing understandings of what the Bible teaches. Because it suggests that the Bible can (rightly and properly, and not merely because of human sinfulness) teach different things to different people. If the Bible can mean anything, then it actually means nothing!

In everyday life we accept restrictions and limits on what texts can mean. Two key and common restrictions are the meaning of words and phrases (literary restraints on possible meaning) and authors’ intentions (historical restraints on meaning). Much of the rest of the Deep Bible series will consider these two sorts of limit and how we can move between these towards deeper and fuller (yet more restrained) understanding of the Bible.

  1. He seems to use the word as a shorthand for what is wrong with self-consciously “Evangelical” readings of Scripture. []
  2. Kevin DeYoung, “Christian Smith Makes the Bible Impossible,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, August 2, 2011, https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/08/02/christian-smith-makes-the-bible-impossible/ and “Those Tricksy Biblicists,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, (September 1, 2011), https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/09/01/those-tricksy-biblicists/; Peter J. Leithart, “A Cheer and a Half for Biblicism,” First Things, August 26, 2011, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/08/a-cheer-and-a-half-for-biblicism; Robert H. Gundry, “Smithereens! Bible-Reading And ‘pervasive Interpretive Pluralism.,’” Books and Culture, October 2011, http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2011/sepoct/smithreens.html.

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  3. Though in this case one side sometimes denies that this is the case, it is more charitable to recognise that both are reading and trying to follow Scripture. Though in this case for both sides the big picture rather than the interpretation of individual passages is usually the driver.  []
  4. Or even the comfortable padded seating that serves the “same” function today. []
  5. I plan to consider the terrible ten in another post, as I was surprised to find that I was more positively disposed towards the statements than DeYoung! []
  6. Sadly often without the discernment needed to distinguish “the Spirit” from “my spirit”. []

Videos for children

For those looking for videos for children that offer reasonably balanced and healthy gender modelling, this post “13 Fabulous Kids’ TV Shows that Pass the Maisy Test and Have Other Great Features, Too” looks to be another great resource from Thalia.

The introduction, with its disparaging remarks about Thomas the Tank Engine is a powerful reminder of how far we have come in my lifetime. The first book (in which Thomas did not even appear!) was published on my birthday but three years before I was. Thomas himself is just a couple of years older than I. Back then it was “normal” that women were almost absent from the public space, though the second world war had recently made huge dents in the Kinder, Küche, Kirche ideology so beloved by Adolph Hitler and other male chauvinists across the ages. (Yes, I am looking at you American “Christian Complementarians”.)

That such attitudes still survive (and not only in such classics as Thomas) is a powerful reminder that the battle for gender equality is far from over.

If you are not ideologically-minded and are in a hurry (as many looking for children’s videos are ;) then please skip Thalia’s fine introduction and just point your children to her recommendations – at least you will have done something to stem the waves of male chauvinist indoctrination the US politico-entertainment complex swamps our psyches with each year.

 

Thanks RTE :)

How odd of God, or the LORD works in mysterious ways

Photo by Jim Legans, Jr

Photo by Jim Legans, Jr

Offering a course, and preparing the material and then having no students enroll is not an outcome any teacher desires.Add in the bonus that the course was being offered is about 19h and 55mins from home, and the situation seems set to categorise as a disaster. However, that would neglect events around the time when we were waiting on tenterhooks to see if students would enroll. During the waiting the prospect of a series for Swarga (a local Christian TV station) began to be seriously aired. The series will use the material I prepared for the NZ Baptist articles each month in 2014. This is material I am really keen to make more accessible and useful in church contexts. By shrinking our holiday a little and with hasty preparation while Barbara (she has a chock full class) I should be able to record six half hour programs before we leave.

In conversation with the principal and the academic dean today another project has been added for after I return to NZ. I will prepare an enlarged version of the articles with more practical examples and fuller explanations which people here will take and adapt to the local context. This localised English version could also be translated into Sinhala and Tamil. The material would then form a basis for introductory courses in practical hermeneutics for some of the programs here. This too is so exciting.

The LORD does indeed work in mysterious ways, and from time to time enlivens our staid lives with rollercoaster rides.

Reading the Bible Faithfully (as seen on TV?)

book-623163Well this has been a roller-coaster of a 24hr day.

First it seemed that 1 Samuel and the delights of biblical story-telling were so unattractive, or I am, that there might be no students for my class (the journey is worth it though, as Barbara has a big class for her teaching about dealing with adolescents – I guess some human issues are really cross-cultural in this globally franchised world). Then there was the possibility of doing a series for Swarga TV using the Reading the Bible Faithfully material.

That is a possibility that really excites me! Encouraging people to read the Scriptures well, faithfully to the ancient meaning, yet attentive to contemporary application is fun and rewarding. To do it via TV and video with a professional crew, lighting, two cameras etc. is a dream (possibly) coming true! That it seems likely that they would be willing to either let me use the video or to make it accessible online, opens possibilities of it being useful in NZ as well.

So when, this morning under the monsoon rain, it became final that there were no students interested in 1 Samuel, the rest of today was spent preparing the first few sessions. This evening an email came to say that the studio is fully booked while I am in Colombo, but that there is a day free when we are meant to be at the beach. (Enjoying a few days rest before heading home, in a plush resort no less!)

Barbara understands how much this project means to me, so she is willing to curtail our restful time on the beach… so, currently the plan is to spend Mon 21st trying to record 12 sessions of 22 mins each. All before heading south in the middle of the afternoon… Please if you are the praying sort (as they say, but really – as they also say – “there are no atheists in foxholes”, in extremity prayer comes naturally to us all) please ask that somehow this may all work for the best!

Ahab, Megiddo and Jezreel

For my latest video in the Land of the Bible series we visit the Jezreel Valley. The focus of the video is on Megiddo (as the site that has more Iron Age remains for the visitor to see).

Tel Megiddo with its massive gate complex, large palace and associated military complex as well as the extensive storage buildings is a fine picture of a major military and administrative centre. The size of king Jeroboam’s grain silo also suggests the hard taxation required to pay for and operate such a centre. Megiddo is located to control the exit southward from the Jezreel Valley.

Jezreel has less to impress visitors today, but was also a significant base defending the entrance to the rich Jezreel Valley from the east. Jezreel has beautiful views, fertile surrounds and plentiful water, no wonder Ahab chose it as his alternate capital.

The biblical accounts of his reign do not focus so much on the magnificent “public works”, or the power of his army, but rather on the injustice and oppression that were associated with the rise of such magnificent kingship, and even more on the religious underpinnings of such kingship in the myths of the gods, in particular Ba’al the “lord” (ba’al) by right of conquest of the pantheon.

As you read 1 Kings 18 and 21 keep in mind these impressive and beautiful cities.

Aronofsky’s “Noah”

Later than most of the (vaguely) interested public1  I finally watched “Noah” on one of the flights the other day.

I won’t comment on the story, or its relationship with Scripture, other have done that well. Nor will I offer erudite comments on the legend of the watchers – I’m not competent. I want to focus on ideology. Again even within this category, I won’t comment on the radical “green” claim that humanity is a blight upon creation, others have. I’ll focus on the blatant misandry. Consistently in this film the men are against life, whether “goodies” or “baddies” those who kill or seek to kill are male. Indeed when humanity’s anti-file tendencies are in view we are named “Man”. By contrast the women consistently seek to preserve life.

I despise such blatant and crude stereotyping.

  1. Only vaguely because I have little interest in “biblical” films, which almost always spoil fine literature making it clumsy film, and on the whole I feel SciFi (the genre descriptor which seems best to fit this film) also works better as text than film. []

Living Biblical Scholarship: Teaching Biblical Studies

Jacob L. Wright’s MOOC makes good use of short video interviews with both established scholars and (at least one so far) PhD candidates talking about their research. As a teaching tool such short videos are brilliant.

If we had a database of such video clips available to download and use in teaching it would be a superb resource. Here are three reasons:

  • Firstly since the person speaking is the one doing the research the presentation is not dispassionate but impassioned. Students are often mislead by the style imposed by our turgid academic conventions to believe that Bible scholars are dull and lifeless. Such video dispels that myth.
  • Secondly many of us put up photos and very cut down CVs when we are talking about a particularly influential scholar and their ideas. How much sharper a clip of them presenting a key idea from their work could be.
  • Third students need to be aware that the “results” of biblical scholarship come on a basis of contested evidence and argument. People talking about their own work are bound to present key evidence and arguments as they seek to convince the listener. Bringing scholarship in the most abstract sense alive.

Easy

Such a database would be easy to produce. Some scholars could record their own videos, others would be videoed by friends or by their departments. (The motivation for this “waste” of an hour or so would be the extra exposure of their ideas and the way such presentations could help shape perceptions of the field – once Her Prof Dr X had a video Dr Y (a passionate opponent of X’s reactionary ideas) would need a complementary (though perhaps not entirely complimentary) one ;)

The host would need a simple classification system to enable searching for topics as well as scholars names, but WordPress with a few plugins could handle all that was needed and even build in a few videos already to be found on YouTube as a bonus.

If SBL or the Wabash Centre would sponsor such a project it would be a cheap way to enliven Biblical Studies teaching and promote a research culture among students. I wonder if GERT would be an appropriate group to push the idea?

Please let me know what you think – and tell me what fish hooks I have overlooked!

Tamara Cohn Eskanazi and Aubrey Buster were two of the scholars Jacob Wright interviewed.

Subverting heroism and gender: Part four of Jacob Wright’s course

This week’s episodes of Jacob Wright’s “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future” were particularly fun for me, for a start his topic (the way the Hebrew Bible subverts gender roles and notions of heroism) appeals, and then as he began, introducing Esther and the subversive topic, he made links to Jane Austen. For someone who wrote a piece entitled “Becoming Esther: Bending Gender Reading Esther” (even if it did become the rather less interesting “A Masculine Reading of the Book of Esther”)1 there are a host of interesting overlaps, ideas and possibilities.

The interview with Tamara Cohn Eskenazi was again a highlight. I am more and more convinced SBL should sponsor and host an archive of short videos of people talking about their research, either interviewed by a friend/colleague or simply chatting to a camera. It would be a great resource for teaching!

  1. When published in Global Perspectives on the Old Testament, edited by Mark Roncace and Joseph Weaver. Pearson Education, 2013. []

Deportation and return as stimulus for textualisation

One of the highlights for me of this week’s episodes of Jacob Wright’s excellent The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future was the interview with doctoral student Aubrey Buster. Her paper, by comparing the treatment of contested belonging within communities in Athens and Jerusalem (at approximately the same time), offers an exciting empirical support for theories that the experience of the dislocation of the Judean elite (deportation and return) led to the greater textualisation of Judaism.

She spoke of comparing Athenian citizenship trials, which depended on personal testimony to support someone’s claim to be a member in good standing of the community (by ancestral descent) with the claims of Ezra-Nehemiah that such issues in (post-exilic) Judah were established primarily on the basis of documents. It is often claimed that the experience of dislocation of the Judean elite led to the writing, editing and/or authorising of many of the biblical texts. I have not previously seen contemporary evidence used to support the claim in this sort of way.

Such research is excellent in itself, but also within such a course presenting current research not only gives students the sense of an open discipline, but also shows how evidence and argument can be used to better understand the biblical texts.

It also helps to firm op our understanding of the social and technological history of writing in relation to Scripture – an ongoing interest of mine :)

The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future: First Impressions

Since this session concerns the background to the emergence of “Israel” in Canaan the Mereneptah Stele is mentioned and shown several times, photo from Wikipedia

When Jacob Wright’s MOOC “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future” was announced and promoted I posted about it on Facebook.

I’ve enrolled and have begun the first week (the course started on Monday, but my first criticism is that I did not get an email reminder until I visited the course site again today – one of the biggest problems with MOOCs in my experience is lack of feedback for the student1 ).

Jacob is a fine teacher he keeps his material lively, and has an engaging presence and voice. The video “lectures” are broken into convenient chunks (of varied size from a couple of minutes to nearly a quarter of an hour2 which for me works well (as someone who as a teen would have been diagnosed ADHD, if the designation existed in those far off days, I have a short attention span and lectures bore me). Each is closed by one or two simple multichoice questions. This is brilliant, it gives the student instant feedback, and if we get them right instant reward and the sense that we are learning something. (Or if we are ourselves Hebrew Bible teachers at least the sense that we listened closely enough ;)

The videos make very skillful use of animated still shots of artifacts and places with the occasional video clip thrown in to create the sense of a video production. The technical values are as one would expect from an official university production.

That’s the good news, and if you are thinking of enrolling, do! The list is not yet closed, and if I have not yet learned much that is (to me) new, I have gained some interesting perspectives and ideas on how to put the material together. This is a MOOC for beginners that specialists can learn from! A fine achievement.

The bad news is that the videos are not optimised for viewing on tablets or phones. On my Phablet the screen resolution is small enough that the video (if played in the browser) overlaps the screen. I have tried the two different formats, and turning my screen around etc. but so far have not found a comfortable way to use the mobile device. (On a PC, even a netbook, all is fine, I guess university testers unlike poor adjunct faculty and students use phones with hi-res screens!)

At this stage I’ll also add a comment that perhaps reflects my context. Jacob uses a lot of Latin expressions, more than my usual audience of Kiwis, Pacific and Asian people would be comfortable with. I am not sure why, as usually the Latin expression is less familiar to me than kit’s English equivalent (like “divide and rule”) perhaps US audiences need “long words” to demonstrate academic credentials? It’s odd because in most ways the presentation is very simple and accessible with the few technical terms explained…

  1. see below. []
  2. so far. []