Student Conference Shaping Up!

This year’s Research in Religious Studies conference to be held here at the University of Lethbridge April 30 and May 1, is starting to look like it will be another success!

The conference is for undergraduate and MA students (or PhD candidates in the very early years of their programs) in any field of the academic study of religion.

The paper submissions are starting to come in, although we don’t really expect a lot until closer to the deadline. Still, we have already accepted contributions from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, John Carroll University in Ohio, and Trinity Western University in British Columbia, not to mention a number from Alberta and elsewhere!

The paper topics already span the iconography of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha,  a comparison of the mystical philosophies of Sankara and Ibn Arabi (and another paper on the latter), Kali, Kerouac’s Buddhism, and exogamous marriages in Ezra and Nehemiah.

Go here to submit your paper proposal. All we need is a title for the paper and a 200-300 abstract (summary) of the paper. You don’t need to submit the whole thing. For more information, including tips on presenting papers, writing abstracts, and the like, to to our conference blog: Research in Religious Studies.

Our keynote speaker for the banquet on Saturday May 1 is Marco Hilgersom from Lethbridge College, who is one of the most engaging and entertaining speakers we have heard. He formerly taught Buddhism and other courses here at the University of Lethbridge and will be talking about the  many religious studies students: what the heck good is religious studies anyway?

Religious Studies Rules!
Marko Hilgersom

Are you tired of responding to “What are you going to do with that?” or “Are you going to become a pastor?” when you tell people you are a Religious Studies Major? There is a simple reason for devoting your life to a religious studies ma-jor. Religious Studies Rules! Religious studies will not only make you a fantastic dinner guest and more attractive to the opposite sex but it provides the key to a successful life. Where else can you find such a varied approach to knowl-edge? Religious Studies is parts history, philosophy, anthro-pology, psychology, literature, sociology, and fine arts. It is truly the most liberal of the Liberal Arts and the most human of the Humanities. Religious studies majors of the world, unite! All you have to lose is your shame.


Anti-Cancer Underpants

Well, I hope the weather is good for this (or bad, I haven’t quite decided). Jim West, I presume, will see it as total depravity, and that’s enough to (athletically) support it.

Saw this on the U. of Lethbridge’s website, and I cut and pasted it for your convenience.

The University of Lethbridge’s Organization of Residence Students (ORS) will be stripping down to their skivvies and running around campus for charity this weekend.

ORS is hosting its second annual Underwear Affair Run/Walk, a two kilometre run/walk around campus on Saturday, Mar. 26 at Noon.

“The ORS has devoted a lot of time into developing philanthropy projects in the community and the Underwear Affair is our continuation of the groundwork laid by our dedicated team,” says Kyle Hammond, ORS President.

Last year the event attracted over 70 participants and a total of $6,700 was raised and donated to World Vision. There is a $5 fee to participate in the event, with all money raised this year to be donated to the Canadian Cancer Society.

“Many people’s lives have been affected by family or friends that have fought cancer and we feel that it is important to help raise awareness and funds for this issue to help those people in need,” says Hammond.

The run will start in the University of Lethbridge Bus Loop, in front of the Students’ Union Building. Participants will traverse the two-kilometre specified route and end at Patterson Centre where they will enjoy a barbecue and refreshments for their efforts.

For further information, contact the event organizer at

heck, they might as well run around on a Saturday in their undies. Many students come up to the public areas of University Hall (residences are in the lower floors) to get to the cafeteria in their pajamas during the week…

Pants, they were invented for a reason, people!


A Crypto-apologetic Old Testament Textbook

This past week I received from Pearson Higher Education the new edition of John H. Tullock and Mark McEntire, The Old Testament Story (9th Edition: Prentice Hall 2012). It was sent unsolicited and was followed up by an email to see if I would be interested in using it for one of my courses.

The original was published some 3 decades ago and from the 7th edition, I believe, Tullock’s original text has been revised by his colleague at the School of Religion at Belmont University a Christian university in Nashville TN.

No, I’m not going to order it for my classes. If any student asks about it, I will warn then away from it.

The volume has absolutely no indication on its front or back cover of the kind of introductory Old Testament/Hebrew Bible class for which it is intended. Is it possible that it might fit a course in secular university such as the one that employs me to teach? The publisher sent me a copy so one might think so.

At first, the book seems intended for a basic course in the OT with a mind to critical scholarship. The preface begins well:

The purpose of this textbook is to introduce students to the collection of literature from ancient Israel that has, for Christian traditions, become the Old Testament. This task necessitates familiarity with the content of the literature  itself, an awareness of the basic framework of the history and culture of the ancient Near East, and insight from the methods of reading ancient texts that have been developed in contemporary scholarship. (p. xv)

Things go totally off the rails quite quickly, though. By page 3 there is a fudging between the Exodus story and the “Exodus event” and on page 4 we learn that there really was an exodus. How is this supported by contemporary scholarship?  Immediately after this, the authors refer to biblical episodes that did not actually occur but they mention only “etiologies” and “fables” such as that told by the character Jotham in Judges 9:7-15, and not any substantial event in the bibles’s story of Israel.

On page 6 the book’s academic perspective is badly compromised. In discussing the process of creating the Old Testament, the authors write:

Some will be quick to point out that it began with God. Even so, God worked through human agents, and it is the work of these human agents that is being discussed. The common belief that God directly dictated the worlds of the Bible is called plenary verbal inspiration. This view is not assumed here. (emphasis original).

From the point of view of a secular class, it might as well have been, even though Tullcok and McIntire quickly concentrate on human actions in recalling and transmitting traditions which eventually formed the Old Testament. A god has no place being inserted into any point in the reconstructed history of a text, or any other causal chain. While it would be natural to do that within confessional circles, it is really anathema to naturalistic social sciences and humanities.

Also on p. 6:

Finally, someone conceived the idea, through what religious people people call inspiration, that the stories of God’s dealing with the people needed to be written down or put into a complete story so that they could preserved.

Here again pietism slips into the discussion. That someone decided that old stories needed to be collected is fine, it happens a lot in religions, but is it the same process that believers would call “inspiration” or are there two different processes, one acknowledged by secular research and another by “inspirationists” (to coin a label)? What purpose can there be to conflate the two perceptions but to unnecessarily legitimize believe in a text that is supposed to teach how to analyze beliefs?

Page 10 discusses why an academic approach is worthwhile as opposed to the alternative “‘Why not just accept it as it is’ and includes “theologians” alongside redaction critics, archaeologists and so forth. Included in this camp are “those who try to look at the message of the Bible as a whole”. Now, I wonder what that “message” might be? That a cobbled together collection of diverse texts as a “whole” message is a product of tradition, and so it that “message” is is not really there to study outside of the study of the early Jewish and Christian thought. How Jews and Christians invented, transmitted, and continue to invent new “messages” for the Bible to convey is the real subject of examination, and not any “message” in and of itself.

The next two pages present the question of the authorship of the Pentateuch. Citing the difficulty in knowing exactly what the ancient label for these five books, “The books of Moses” actually mean, T. and M. write:

Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch thus turns out to be a tradition of unknown origin. Because of this, it is difficult to construct rational arguments for or against this idea.

Really? How about the difficulty in ascertaining the existence of a Moses, the internal contradictions within the Pentateuch, the increasing recognition that much of the biblical material is not nearly as old as once thought, the wholly speculative nature of claims of a long oral transmission before the Pentateuch traditions were recorded in writings? rather than present modern scholarship, the books seems to filter and qualify  it to avoid the worst impact on the faithful students.

Just this brief survey of some issues I have with the first chapter should demonstrate how ill-suited this volume is for the secular classroom. Many more abound thoughout the text:

Joseph could not live forever, nor could one expect the Hyksos rulers to dominate Egypt forever. Joseph died, and the Hyksos were overthrown. As native Egyptians regained control of their government, the circumstances of the Hebrews changed. (p. 64)

This equation of the Hyksos with the Hebrews is horribly simplified. The historicity of Joseph and the “original seventy persons in the family of Jacob” is also strongly implied, something totally exceeds the limits of real scholarship. Such rationalized paraphrase of the biblical text that has learned nothing over the past few decades of methodological self-criticism within biblical scholarship.  Cheap pietism also abounds. On the same page as the above quote, one reads

Moses is the major human character in the Exodus narratives but they are designed not to glorify Moses, but rathe to glorify the LORD, the God of Israel. It was the LORD of history and the master of the created order who brought Israel out of Egypt.

Why the pious rhetoric in the scholarly voice? Tullock and McEntire cannot here be speaking of what the Bible says about the deity in the exodus myth. A close look at the descriptions of God can make this clear.

“The LORD, the God of Israel” is a biblical construction (although “God” might be more accurately rendered with a lowercase g). As any one with  a single serious course in the Hebrew Bible (let alone biblical Hebrew) should know, “LORD” (with uppercase or small caps) is typically the way the divine name YHWH (Yahweh) is represented in English translations that wish to follow the Jewish custom of substituting the word adonai “my lord” to avoid profaning YHWH. The problem is with the second use of LORD. Note the author’s dual references to the deity.

LORD of history / master of the created order.

“LORD of history” is not a biblical epithet at all and one wonders what “Yahweh of history” could possibly mean. Tullock and McEntire’s sentence is hardly an accurate depiction of how the Exodus narratives describe or name the deity. Rather, their epithets refer to the “biblical” deity they believe in. The expression indicates that they subscribe that modern Christian myth that the divine is revealed through the history of the Israelite people and that the Bible reflects this “historical” reality. “LORD of history” must have its origin in such a myth as it makes no sense whatsoever on any kind of academic level. The divine name, regardless of how it is is represented in English as “LORD” is not a real synonym for “master”, but that is how our authors seem to be using it.

That Pearson’s sales rep decided that I would consider a book that maintains that there is a god behind the writing of the Old Testament is a product of the unacknowledged border between scriptural study and secular academic biblical study. Sales reps should know their market and their products and Pearson’s seems to know neither. I won’t blame him except as an accessory to a textbook industry that recognizes no distinction in the makeup of its market for books on the Bible between confessional and secular schools. But this should change.

I checked the online order page for this book from Pearson Higher Education. Its list price is $104.00 and there is no indication there of the Christian perspective of the authors. It is sold for $83.06 at What is interesting here is that some of the online reviews fault the book for its allegedly “extreme liberal” bias and for buying into the documentary hypothesis! I wonder how many people mislead by these reviews bought the book thinking they were getting a fairly secular introduction the Old Testament! The reviews and the lack of accurate descriptions of the book make this a real possibility.

Pearson is probably not alone in mislabelling, or perhaps better, under-labelling their products. The situations isn’t likely to change until people start speaking out.  So, here is the response to Pearson’s representative I sent just before posting this.

Thanks for thinking about me in sending me the review copy of the 9th edition of Tullock and McEntire’s The Old Testament Story. I’m sorry to report that I find the book entirely unacceptable for my introductory class in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. My primary objection is that the presupposes that the readers will accept the existence of a deity at work in the history of ancient Israel. Although the authors are hardly “fundamentalists” or “literalists”, they remain more conservative than liberal in their beliefs and this causes unacceptable compromises of academic standards. As the University of Lethbridge is a fully secular university, I  cannot in good conscious require my students to purchase this volume.
There is no indication on the volume or your online marketing for this book that the author’s take a confessional stance, but it is quite obvious when the book itself is read. I would recommend that your marketing people begin to make a distinction between secular and confessionally oriented books. In teh very least, it would save your company the expense of mailing complementary copies to people who have no use for the volumes.
That being said, I would still be interested in receiving updates on future Pearson titles that are more up my alley.

See my comments on some other introductions to the Hebrew Bible and their treatment of myth.

And my comment on declining an offer of contributing to a book intended for a confessional audience.


Ladies, please keep Jesus out of your undies.

Ah, yes, the hand of God!

Hat tip to Craig M. who posted this video on facebook.

Cafe Press

And then there is this video that has been all around the internet lately

It does make you wonder

Of course, you don’t want Satan in your underpants, either!

How graduate students get to class

Joel Watts, who is always late for class, and has to hurry:

Scott Bailey, who refuses to go for that canned MP3 music and prefers do it his own way!

Categories: Fun

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More on the (Secular) Society of Biblical Literature

It’s good to see this discussion about secularism and the Society of Biblical Literature developing since I first posted on the subject on March 13. Since then, Scott Bailey has a great post on the topic and there are numerous long comments there by others. Much of it is trying to clear up John Hobbins’ misrepresentations and misunderstandings (t o no avail, apparently), but there are a lot of substantial points are made along the way. James McGrath has a post too and there are some substantial comments.  I discussed very briefly some of the issues in a post on the 16th that predominantly deals with Hobbin’s misreading of my original post and I promised a longer reply to some other reactions, and so this is little essay should go some way to fulfill that promise.

At the outset,  I need to restate some things that are often overlooked in the heat of the discussion in which popular misconceptions sometimes come to the fore. So let me state clearly:

1) Secularism does not equal atheism or anti-religion.

Secularism, of course, can mean different things to different people, and the members of the Secular Biblical Criticism steering committe themselves disagree on its boundaries and what, if any, term might be a better replacement. During the Secular Biblical Criticism’s group’s initial planning session in New Orleans in 2009, before the steering committee (William Arnal, Zeba Crook, Randy Reed, Johanna Stiebert and myself) was chosen, we had a good discussion on what to call ourselves. Our choice of terms is still debated on our private email list which now has around 20 members. Our recent discussion have to some extent confirmed our earlier choice as the least inappropriate of any alternative.

“Non-confessional”, a term I often use, is not ideal since it indicates what we do not do, instead of what we do. “Scientific” was suggested, but it carries specific connotations that cannot really cover the full range of sub-disciplines and approaches we feel are integral to biblical criticism. The use of “critical” as a label is, for many in our group, completely redundant, as any scholarship is necessarily critical, and there cannot be an uncritical scholarship. As some on our large email list have pointed out, some confessional groups use the term “critical” to define their approach to their scriptures, so it is a hotly contested term.  Other terms bandied about included “humanistic”, “humanist”, “analytic”, but none really seem to fit the bill.

One of our group asked in a recent email to consider our problem from this angle: how odd do these disciplines sound: “Humanist Shakespeare Studies. Non-Confessional African History. Analytical Homeric Criticism.” This is the essence of the problem we see see with the current academic landscape surrounding the study of the Bible, its producers, and consumers throughout the ages. It is an issue that does not arise in most of the humanities and social sciences too often and scholars working in these fields do not have to identify themselves over and against “confessional” perspectives. Within Religious Studies, such matters arise more often but mostly in the areas which overlap with the interests of the sub-discipline of biblical studies (e.g., history and thought of Christianity, Judaism, religion in the modern world). For much of religious studies, however, the boarders are relatively easy to identify.

In biblical, Christian or Jewish studies, however, “scholarship”, “critical” etc. are all used by people working within theological contexts whose research contributions employ as premises the existence of a historically active deity, the possibility of miracles, and the historicity of biblical narratives for which no external corroboration can be found. There must be a way to identify work that is not built on such religious belief.

We picked the word “secular” and, as I’ve noted above, it is understood in different ways in various contexts. What I mean by secular, and I think the majority of the committee won’t have serious reservations about it, is this: discourses that seeks naturalistic explanations for the products of human experience, thought and culture, including religion. These discourses, therefore, stand out side of any particular religious world view.

To some people, the word “secular” evokes a hostility to religion or, worse, a denigration of religious people. The SBC committee does not imply anything like this. Nor does “secular” mean for us a view that implies the impossibility of there being a deity but includes agnostic positions or the bracketing of faith commitments for the sake of an academic argument.

One concern that many in our group have is that any term we use to label ourselves has the potential to be misread by others. Given the sharp polemics in the public sphere over religion, which spans science education, politics and more, virtually any term we could have settled on would be taken by some as battle cry against religion and the integrity of religious people. As one correspondent in the email discussions pointed out, even if we found a suitable term that is currently is not interpreted by the faithful as an attempt to demonize them or their religion within a year it would be!

But let us take a lesson from scholarship, shall we? “Myth”, in its popular usage, is a term that has negative, disparaging evaluations of a story (i.e., “lie” or “error”). In academic usage, however, it regularly means something else entirely, and when scholars call the Puranas to be collections of Hindu myths they are not indicating that these stories are to be insulted. So too with academic uses of “secular” (or “humanistic” for that matter).

Following from this:

2) Secular scholarship represents the majority of work done under the SBL’s auspices at the meetings and certainly in terms of its publication efforts.

We did not intend to imply by our group name that we would be the only people doing secular biblical criticism.  We certainly are under no misconception about that. What the group is intended to do is to talk about the necessity of secular perspectives as a part of the critical examination of the Bible and the negative impact on this work from the existing unclear boundaries between itself and confessional approaches that do not bracket out the content of faith commitments.

3) People who work for denominational colleges or are believers can be, and often are, very good scholars and do a lot of work fully in tune with what we mean by “secular”.

This point cannot be under-emphasized. Considerable amounts of the best scholarship on the Bible is done by believers who work in a wide range of institutions and everyone in the SBC committee and our supporters know this adn will freely acknowledge it publicly. Much of this work is fully at home in a purely secular setting as well.


I hope the above discussion goes some way in alleviating the concerns  James McGrath seems to have about our views concerning the many scholars who do work in confessional institutions. I also hope that this clears up a few issues that arise from his post in which he asks his readers if the SBL should  “simply allow secular, atheist and other views to have their own sessions to[sic]?” As noted, atheists and secular scholars already have sessions. What is lacking, however, is a forum to talk about secularism.

McGrath certainly has some sympathy with my original post but he also makes the valid observation that the scholars who work in faith-based institutions do their work essentially in the service of the church. He seems to be a bit wary about our views on this situation. He writes:

At present, my inclination is to view the matter thus: I don’t mind other people doing things that I don’t personally find valuable, as long as (1) there is academic rigor; and (2) all viewpoint are free to hold their program units. And at present,  there does indeed seem to be legitimate cause for concern in both these areas.

Each member of the SBC committee or those in the larger group of supporters has their own sense of what is the most interesting or relevant topics to study and each probably has a few subject areas that are considered of dubious merit, yet we are committed to defending a great level of diversity within the SBL if there is, as McGrath puts it, “academic rigor”. Where we would part company, however, is over the issue of faith-based work, regardless of its academic rigor. But let us not forget that we do not construe all work done by Christians or Jews in confessional institutions to be inadmissible, but only some of it.

My personal view is that if the details of these scholars’ specific pieces of work does not require a faith commitment to accept or if there is no challenge to the author’s faith committments if the work is refuted on rational, academic grounds, then there is no problem presenting this work at the SBL meetings, in its publications or any other academic venue. I certainly do not wish to give the impression that all of a scholar’s efforts must pass our test before any of it is presentable!  The SBL should judge the merits of each paper presented to it on an individual basis and ignore the religious affiliations of its author. We should judge the work and not the worker.

Now, there clearly are  conceptions of the Bible, the Church and ancient Israel within Christianity and Judaism that do require belief in a deity to make any sense  and upon such premises many books and articles are produced. To my mind, the products of such thought, regardless of how well thought out they are, are hardly compatible with the way the Bible is studied in the majority of SBL sessions in which acceptance or rejection of scholarly conclusions do not depend upon religious belief.

The Society of Biblical Literature is a member of the American Council of Learned Societies whose mission is “the advancement of humanistic studies in all fields of learning in the humanities and the social sciences and the maintenance and strengthening of relations among the national societies devoted to such studies.” The ACLS is a secular organization of secular societies. What the SBC group wishes to do is to promote these secular academic values as essential to the role of the SBL in its own mission to promote biblical scholarship.

Having said this, let me repeat that any restriction on the scope of the SBL that the SBC might imply by this is directed at specific works of research on an individual basis and not on the individual researchers or their institutions. Thus, some of the output of one scholar may be welcomed into the SBL and other papers may not.

We need to remember that the Society of Biblical Literature is not the only venue for the products of careful examination of the Bible, and the SBL cannot represent the totality of research areas of all of the institutions for which its members work. It already is selective. Most likely a large number of faculty who belong to the SBL (including myself)  have academic interests that are outside of the scope of biblical studies or put their education to use in non-academic areas (e.g., political commentary, or various forms of activism). Since the SBL is essentially secular, we feel that it needs to view confessional study  of scripture as beyond its purview as well.

It needs to be remembered that even as it as it is today the SBL is not host to any and all thought about the Bible. The SBL probably excludes more than it includes. But should it be a free for all? McGrath understandably argues that  “academic rigor” should be the determine the admissibility of a program but here I would have to differ.  Intellectual sophistication and can occur within religious contexts that seem to an outsider to be quite conservative or even “fundamentalist”. But can a scholarly society otherwise dedicated to the social sciences and humanities entertain papers that take the existence of Abraham or Noah “on faith” that the Bible’s God would not mislead the reader? Should these  be allowed? And if so, what about a historical Noah or Adam? Where should inclusiveness end? It must end somewhere if the term “scholarship” is to mean something.

In my original post on the 13th, I mentioned a number of program units that engage in confessional scholarship.  I need to ask now why the supporters of these units thought they needed this particular kind of unit and recognition by the SBL. My sense is that such units are attractive to some members because it allows the bracketing out of some of the secular methodologies and critical questioning of the Bible in which the majority of sessions relish. But if critical questioning is curtailed in particular units, are they really deserving of inclusion, regardless of whatever intellectual rigor guides the particular papers?

For example, the Christian Theology and Bible session will be hosting three sessions in San Francisco on “Life in the Spirit”, one of which will deal with Jesus’ “life in the Spirit”. For the supports of this group Jesus truly had a “life in the Spirit”. As I said earlier, this is the stuff of modern Christian mythology (in its positive academic sense) about Jesus, yet in these sessions it is simply taken as historical reality beyond doubt. Mythology has displaced academic integrity.  Indeed, for one session they would interpret “Christological Controversies surrounding Nicea in light of Jesus’ (and others’) experience of the Spirit”.  I wonder if this program unit would entertain papers or the presiders acknowledge objections from the spectators that this “life in the spirit” is a modern phenomenon being read into the past, or that the biblical evidence of what Jesus’ own spiritual life was like is a tendentious construct not to be accepted at face value?

The Homiletics and Biblical Studies unit advertises itself as encouraging “dialogue among scholars in both fields who share an interest in critical exegesis, its various methods, and the unique hermeneutical and theological problems inherent to the relationship between biblical interpretation and proclamation.” This group also recognizes that some critical exegesis proses problems for the “proclamation” of the divine word. But why is an academic society that sees itself as part of the social sciences and humanities interested in  proclamation in the first place? I can see how scholars who have an interest in actually proclaiming (rather than just analyzing proclamations ethnographically)  may wish to talk about the intersection of their two careers. But the proper venue for that discussion would be in conferences of theologians and pastors, not secular academia.

Similarly, I’ve noted in my original post how the Bible and Pastoral Theology group construes the Bible as something different from “human texts”. But Pastoral Theology is a vocation that exists within the confines of Christianity. It is properly something that could be studied but its practice is something beyond what the SBL can legitimately engage without compromising its own scope of analysis and critique. How would this group’s participants take to requests for a demonstration of the Bible’s non-human nature? That is a claim that is based on faith, not scholarship. Yet, the SBL will freely treat religious texts from other traditions as “human texts”. The status quo in the SBL implicitly ranks the legitimacy of various religions. Rather than have a free for all, the best option is to treat all scriptures, all claims to inspiration and revelation, and all religious formulations as human and historically contingent products.

The “Theological Hermeneutics of Christian Scripture” unit openly declares the Bible to be divine revelation and Christians to be “God’s People”. The group claims that critical approaches to the Bible have limits. But then, let them explore the openness of faith in the context of their own churches and meetings of theologians. A secular society committed to those “limited” methodologies is hardly the place. Rather, it is the THCS unit that places limits on what scholarship can or can not study or critique, and as such, I cannot see how they can justify their existence as part of the SBL. Indeed, their claim about “God’s people” again implicitly ranks religions.

When I first began blogging about my dissatisfaction with SBL, I was wondering if it would be best to avoid the 2009 meeting in New Orleans. I went through the program book and found a listing for  paper by Margaret B. Adam in the  “Christian Theological Research Fellowship”, which holds meeting in affiliation with the SBL. The abstract for “Catastrophe Transformed: Suffering Together as the Dependent Body of Christ” includes this:

Then, when pain does come, when life ceases to go according to plan, it seems unprecedented, unfair, and catastrophic. This modern autonomous self thus suffers the incongruously heightened vulnerability of an endangered illusory self-sufficiency, an illusion to which the gospel offers an alternative both truer and more fully human: baptized into the body of a suffering Lord, they unite in interdependence; their solidarity equips them to endure suffering…

I cannot believe that anyone would permit a speaker  in a 21st century academic meeting to assess ideas according to a scale  of partial to “fully human”.

Many people have expressed concerns the SBC is seeking to limit opportunities and restrict scholarship. In my view we are doing something quite the opposite. We are defending the integrity of scholarship against those who would place limits on critically examining their own religious views.

To close this overly long post, let me just say recent conversations with a variety of people in person, in blogs, and through email have given me a good bit of hope that the SBL can sort itself out, and to some extent, I regret some of the severity of what I wrote on the 13th. I am certainly not the first person to criticize the SBL’s welcoming of confessional program units. In recent years, the issue was becoming very public and the SBL issued its own response to Ronald Hendel’s well publicized refusal to renew his membership. But length of the arguments about the secular nature of the SBL should have been an indication to the program committee that critical self reflection on this was necessary and that people willing to talk openly about this should be accommodated.

In one regard, perhaps there has been a misunderstanding about the process of approving a new unit. As the SBC committee understood the process, the application requires the steering committee of a prospective unit to submit a two year plan with two sessions for each year. We did this last year only to have the application returned for additional clarification on what we meant by “secular”. We reapplied this year and were told that the application was rejected but we were granted one of the two sessions as a trial. There seemed to be nothing in the SBL literature that this was a possible or likely preliminary step in the approval status. I and some others took this perhaps too harshly, and perhaps if the SBL in future iterations of its documents could spell this possibility out, future misunderstandings and hard feelings could be averted. Be that as it may, I still remain a little dumbfounded that a ostensibly secular society that embraces confessional work would think that a discussion of secularity needed a trial run. As I suggested early, “secularism” has become the elephant in the room and the SBL has not done itself any favours by letting the situation persist for so long.

“Dressing modestly could help women avoid trouble” “Rubbish” says Mary

Mary, the future Mrs. Dr. Jim, has had her say in the local paper about a total asshat who thinks women who wear immodest clothes are courting unwanted sexual aggression from men. All though the guy said he was not blaming the victim, he was. The issue was over an editorial concerning a Manitoba case in which the judge ruled that a woman was the cause of her own misfortune when she was sexually assaulted. According to the Brandon Sun:

A convicted rapist will not go to jail because a Manitoba judge says the victim sent signals that “sex was in the air” through her suggestive attire and flirtatious conduct on the night of the attack.

Kenneth Rhodes was given a two-year conditional sentence last week which allows him to remain free in the community, in a decision likely to trigger strong debate. The Crown wanted at least three years behind bars.

Queen’s Bench Justice Robert Dewar called Rhodes a “clumsy Don Juan” who may have misunderstood what the victim wanted when he forced intercourse along a darkened highway outside Thompson in 2006.

“This is a different case than one where there is no perceived invitation,” said Dewar. “This is a case of misunderstood signals and inconsiderate behaviour.”

Dewar said he didn’t want to be seen as blaming the victim but that all of the factors surrounding the case must be viewed to assess “moral blameworthiness.”

“I’m sure whatever signals were sent that sex was in the air were unintentional,” he said.

The Crown was seeking at least three years in prison for Rhodes, who has no prior criminal record and works for the City of Thompson. They cited numerous precedents from the Manitoba Court of Appeal suggesting the “starting point” for a major sexual assault involving intercourse is a penitentiary sentence.

On February 26,  the Herald had an editorial denouncing this decision.

Karen Busby said the judge’s comments only reinforce the idea that there could be implied consent to sex. Busby also pointed to an incident last week in which a police officer speaking to university students in Toronto had to apologize after suggesting women invite sexual assault if they dress provocatively.
It just goes to show that, even among those in the justice system, a troubling tendency remains to blame the victim. What will it take to drive home the point that regardless how a woman might be dressed, it’s not an open invitation for a man to indulge his lustful desires? It’s difficult enough to make this understood among certain segments of the male population without police officers and judges supporting them in their inappropriate and sometimes illegal behaviour.
What’s so hard to understand about “no means no”?

Well, a certain Michael Breukelman took issue and on the 13th of March wrote:

… Kenneth Rhodes should have been given at least what the Crown asked for in the Manitoba case. He has no excuse for his actions. Having said that, women who dress provocatively offer no help to themselves or to men who struggle with their eyes. They share some responsibility, too.

To make my point more clear, we are often reminded by our police forces to keep our vehicles locked while unattended and to keep valuables out of sight at least to reduce the risk of suffering loss or damage to our possessions. How much more valuable are humans than vehicles or other possessions? How much more should we not protect ourselves?

Dress these days says a lot, and it garners a lot of attention, some of which is unwelcome. A woman who wears provocative clothing may not intend to give an open invitation to men, but her choices nevertheless foster temptation. It’s true, men must learn to control their lustful behaviour. That is entirely their responsibility. But women offer no help when they show themselves off in public for everyone to see. Please dress modestly and respectfully so as not to be a stumbling block to men. And men, train your eyes and avoid tempting situations wherever you can.

Personally, I don’t get his silly analogy. An expensive camera left on a car seat might be a tempting target for a thief but it is tempting whether it is in or outside of its case! The only safe thing is to lock it in the trunk or hide it under the dash so it is not seen at all. But perhaps there where Mrs. Breukelman has to sit when her hubby goes shopping.

That being as it may, my sweetie Mary responded to Breukelman in a letter published this morning:

Modest Dress Won’t Protect Women from Assault
Michael Breukelman’s March 13 letter to the editor was frustrating, to say the least. Giving benefit of the doubt, he seems to be greatly confused and requires some educating.

Firstly, it is a grave mistake to equate involuntary “lustful” thoughts (which can have little to do with what a woman is or isn’t wearing) that do not harm another human being with intentional and violent sexual assault, or to suggest that one invariably leads immediately to the other. It is a disgusting idea, and insulting to both sexes. It could easily cause rape survivors to feel completely undeserved guilt and responsibility, “modestly dressed” women to feel completely false invulnerability to assault, and reinforce the idea that men “cannot help themselves” from being violent towards women.

Certainly, it is wise for parents to teach their own children how to dress appropriately, and even more importantly, how to treat the opposite sex with respect. It is quite another thing to say that just dressing modestly enough will protect you from being raped. If only that were so! Women in full body coverings, such as the burqa, can still be and have been raped.

Secondly, studies have shown that male rapists of women are likely to think little of women, to believe they caused their own rape, and to have little preference between forced and unforced sex. Motives for rape vary among perpetrators, and there are usually multiple motives involved, and can include desire for power over another individual, wishing to humiliate the person, and so on.

I hope that Mr. Breukelman, and those sharing his ideas expressed in his letter, will educate themselves, and stop spreading misinformation about such an important and sensitive issue.

This is rather more polite than the oral version of her response that I heard before she wrote this!

More Philosophical and Creationist lol-critters

This one was inspired by one I found on the ICHC site, and I thought I would improvise a little on it for my own nefarious porpoises!

This one is for John V. who recently commented on my apparent negative attitude towards dogs.
Found this somewhere on the web:

Science, Genesis, and the Fabrication of Scriptural Meaning

The Bible and Interpretation online magazine has been posting a few “interesting” (in all of the loaded, academic senses of that term) articles of late. It sometimes becomes a battle field for very different points of view: witness its set of variety of articles on the “minimalist/maximalist” debates (that is, the arguments over how historically reliable the Bible should be assumed to be). The site is a curious resource for scholars and other interested folk, and it spans not only interpretation of the Bible, archeology of ancient Palestine but also the state of biblical scholarship, with academic and confessional voices given space.

In December of last year, Charles David Isbell of Louisiana State University published an article called Creation, Science and Genesis that posits a science-friendly way of reading the creation narratives. What struck me, however, was that Isbell’s “creative” interpretation, while affirming some kind of accommodationist stance, really is not all that science-friendly and his biblical interpretation is fraught with difficulties.

The article’s abstract does not really capture the essay’s main point.

“Does Genesis 1.1 affirm the existence of the earth before God began His creative work described in the opening verse of Genesis?” Since there is no doubt that such an affirmation is both possible and plausible, grammatically and syntactically, the creation described in Genesis 1 need not be a description of the beginning of the world “from nothing,” but it may be understood as the act of transforming a formless and void earth into a universe of order, structure, and beauty.

What the abstract misses is that the article is not really a linguistic study of Genesis 1 or a refutation of those who understand the book as affirming a doctrine of creation from nothing: academic topics open for study by anyone, believer or not. Rather, the article argues against seeing a sharp polarity between the Bible and science and for a religious accommodationism between faith and science. In defending the view that religion and science are compatible – since they deal with different subject matter in different ways – Isbell offers a highly ad hoc, selective, and even dishonest interpretation of the Genesis that recreates the world of the ancient authors in the image of Isbell.

Isbell is not a literalist by any means and says as much but in some respects his position shares some ideals  with the “fundamentalist” position he disputes. Moreover, his position is hardly friendly to the full scope  of secular research. Indeed, he seeks to insulate the contents of “religion” (at least, the content of his religion), from scientific or other academic scrutiny, while all but ignoring the impact of other secular academic work into the nature of religion itself. And this is core of my objections to this and to virtually all forms of accommodationism. It opens a space for allowing science to exist but closes the door to the academic study of religion.

It could be argued that secularists should not be too hostile to the religious accommodationist camp since it forces only minor compromises on scientific and social scientific thought. Any “damage” they might do politically or educationally (from a secular point of view) is fairly minimal when compared to the sheer anti-intellecualism of dyed in the wool creationists like Ken Hamm or the Discovery Institute, (most of which seem to be the U.S., but, alas, there are anti-science voices in Canada, too, as I’ve commented here).

Yet, the accommodationist and the young earth creationist perspective are not always that far removed from each other. Both are reactions to the strength of scientific thought in the modern world. Both preserve religious claims that are beyond proof or falsifiability: e.g., that there is at least one deity responsible for the way things are, and that human intelligence and the sciences may study the results of the divine handiwork, but not the deity itself.

For some other arguments against accommodationism, see the many posts on Why Evolution is True, such as here,  here, and here, while Biologos takes a rather opposite view (this Biologos article by Peter Enns deals with the Cain and Abel story). I’ve posted here, too.

What is sometimes lost in shuffling debates over accommodationism (and certainly in Isbell’s case) is that religion itself is itself a product of human culture and is inherently flexible. Religious “truths” shift and evolve with changing times, conditions, moral sensibilities and the uncountable interactions of its various adherents, hangers-on and outsiders. An academic view of religion would accent this creativity as it calls into question any religious claim about reality that stands outside of empirical evidence.

Thanks to Neil Godfrey over at Vridar for finding this cartoon for me.

Religions also shift with changing intellectual and moral climates. For example, modern sensibilities have forced Jesus to wear the hats of the socialist, capitalist, feminist, and gay-rights advocate, while believers find different ways to reject or explain away biblical support for slavery, genocide, or capital punishment for urban rape victims. One of the functions religion often performs is to turn recent ideas into ancient, primordial or timeless ones, which often results in covering the tracks of a tradition’s own history. Understanding the ways this happens is an important part of the academic study of religion.

The Young Earth Creationist movement is a great example of how religion can adapt and cover  its own tracks. YEC can neither reject or ignore all levels of science. To a great degree it advocates a certain level of accommodationism, too. YECs are not Luddites, they use a lot of technology and some contribute to various scientific researches. Yet, science is a threat to them and so their response to the rise of our scientific world is not to let the scientists have free reign, but rather to appropriate or co-opt the terminology of science to “prove” that their construction of a Biblical cosmology is defensible.

“If we build it, the cargo will come.”

YEC is predominantly a symbolic process, appropriating aspects of science and creating icons of them in a new context that appears to create legitimacy for an allegedly “old” way of life. This “old” way, however, is itself a modern construct, generated in response to the threat to social status and group integrity by science and the enlightenment. That the symbolic “science” doesn’t actually work by the standards of the outsiders isn’t the point. Its true significance is that it “works” for the believers on a symbolic, mystical, and mythical level and that covers any shortcomings in terms of logic, science or engineering. And for them, the mythical is what matters (although, of course, they call it something else). For the YECer, emphasis on the (pseudo-)scientific integrity of scripture is the natural, obvious, and correct interpretation;the timeless essence of the faith. Thus, they are often blind to the history of interpretation and intellectual legacy of their own, wider religious community and the fact that they are products of their own time.

Harry Nibourg's Creation Science Museum in Big Valley, Alberta

“If we build it, the science will come”

Isbell’s paper can be seen as an example of this kind of reshaping of religious tradition to accommodate new ideas or unavoidable realities in a positive fashion. Isbell advocates a form of accommodationism that is hardly ameniable to a YEC viewpoint but he still calls for a sharp segregation between science and faith and setting the content of faith as out of the reach of academic critique.  His is as mythical a world view as anything imagined within the YEC community.

In the course of affirming that science and bible-based theology are two completely separate fields of human intellectual endeavour Isbell says his purpose in writing is to deconstruct “the idea of a single biblical view of creation (‘the’ biblical viewpoint)”, which stems from the “false presumption that there is only one way to read Genesis.”

He tackles the ambiguity of Genesis 1:1, typically read as “In the Beginning God created the heavens and the Earth”. Isbell claims that:

the assumption of only one acceptable translation of Genesis 1.1 has established an unnecessary barrier between science and the Bible, two very disparate disciplines with different but equally valid goals and methods of inquiry.

Isbell throws too much importance on Genesis in his presentation of this “unnecessary barrier”.  The barrier could be established by looking at the plausibility of the stories of the resurrection, the sun standing still, talking donkeys, the absence of evidence of the Exodus, and a host of other miracles and physical impossibilities detailed within the Bible’s pages.

It might seem pedantic, but, contra Isbell’s formulation, “the Bible” is not a “method of inquiry”. This might be just a poor word choice, but it brings to mind the assumption that one sometimes finds in very conservative and fundamentalist circles that the Bible is, in its own right, a knowledge generating entity. But the Bible does not interpret itself, however much many believers, blind to their own traditions and input, seem to think. It is false description that says nothing sensible about the “Bible”, the collective term for a variety of collections of Jewish and Christian writings.. The construal of the Bible, a product of culture, as a “method of learning” serves to distract one from the very human origins of these collections of writing.  Moreover, it serves to legitimize the claimant’s interpretative strategies as being at least equal to the methodologies and conclusions of the various sciences while keeping them securely out of the way of critical scrutiny.

He also misconstrues evolution:

Basic to the debate is the assumption that both evolution and Genesis are addressing the same question: When did the world begin?

Again, Isbell adopts a misconception common to anti-intellectual religionists, that the Theory of Evolution offers an explanation of the the origins of the universe. Evolution has nothing to do with the Big Bang and even the origins of life. The theory only covers speciation.  But this hardly matters to the faithful (see my post on a high school teacher who makes the same mistake) What YECs and many others call “evolution” is the entire world of science and modernity that is seen to threaten biblical “truth”. Their “evolution” is more than a logical strawman, it is a religious icon of the “truth’s” enemy.

In perhaps unconsciously appropriating the creationists’s cypher for anti-religion, Isbell not only shows himself as more comfortable with certain religious based misrepresentations of science than with science itself. Moreover, (here I’m being a bit mischievous) he also seems to embrace an “earth centered” universe that is so typical of ancient and religious cosmologies. We can see this in how he points to “geological and fossil evidence” as implying an early start to the universe. Certainly these factors were important (and hence, now iconic) in the 19th century’s challenge to biblical chronology, but they are no longer significant to cosmological research. The age of the universe (ca 13.75 billion years) is actually determined by measuring the background radiation of the universe and estimating the rate of the universe’s expansion. Isbell himself doesn’t seem aware of the real state of the question as he writes rather glibly that “physical evidence that now speaks in terms of millions or even billions of years” for the age of the earth. This raises an important question: how much can Isbell actually say about the compatibility of science and religion if he is so unaware of which science is which and what the prevailing scientific opinions are.

Still, Isbell is right in pointing to the rather large gap between the  scientifically determined age of the universe and that age accepted by most YECs (ca. 6000 years), a time span derived from the genealogical schemes in the Bible as estimated by James Ussher. Isbell writes that Ussher was probably influenced by 2 Peter 3:8 and Psalm 90:4 which claims that from God’s point of view, a thousand years is but a day.

Ussher thus interpreted the six days of Genesis 1 both literally to describe the length of time God spent in creating the world and figuratively to prefigure the length of time that creation would endure.

The first creation story (Gen. 1:1-2:4) ends with the sanctification of the seventh day and the creator’s rest, the Sabbath. Isbell notices the connection the Ten Commandments makes between this as the Sabbath regulations (Exodus 20:8-11). It is interesting, however, that Isbell does not link the creation week of Genesis to the establishment of an ancient ritual calendar and this certainly must have been a primary social/cultic function of the text in its early days. It  STILL functions as the Sabbath’s charter myth for both Judaism and Christianity. In this regard, Genesis 1:1-2:4 is quite comparable to Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation account that was, like very many ancient creation myths, linked to religious ritual.

Isbell does engage in brief a comparative study but ritual or other Religious Studies issues are ignored in favour of affirming that the Bible has a moral perspective lacking other ancient religious writings. He does not explore the possibility that ancient Israel’s neighbours had moral codes and ethical systems enshrined in other bodies of written or oral tradition. Oddly, his comparison is introduced in the context of affirming the distinction between science and theology and in arguing that the Bible has no place in science classes (presumably he doesn’t think Enuma Elish belongs there, either). He writes, “the physical laws of the universe do not allow for the making of moral or theological judgments.” It is these kinds of judgments which govern his comparison. Isbell’s sees the “profoundly theological” creation stories of Genesis in direct opposition to other ancient creation stories such as the Hymn to Ptah (Egypt) or Enuma Elish.

Specifically, Genesis transforms the idea of multiple gods creating the world by committee into the picture of a single deity acting alone in sovereign power, and the entire opening literary unit of Genesis (chapters 1-11) underscores the distinctive character of the God introduced in the creation narratives.

Isbell says that the god of Genesis is “one majestic, and all-powerful” deity, and that science “inclues no category for evaluating” the “theological affirmation” that Genesis’s god overthrew the the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) in reaction to human hubris and presumption.  I fail to see what sort of insight Isbell thinks he is making. He is simply defining theology as as beyond the reach of science. Of course, science can’t tell us a lot of things so little is learned by Isbell’s silly claim .

Dan Stark (Bradley Whitford) of The Good Guys (Fox TV) gets philosophical.

Yet, Isbell is excluding the impact of other disciplines on the biblical story. Historical linguistics, archaeology and a host of other fields have a radically different explanation for the distribution of human societies and the relationship of different languages which the Tower of Babel myth seems to explain. Such studies also discuss how mythology is formed.

The Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 is indeed about human hubris but also of divine fear that perhaps one day he could not control his own creation:

The LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. (Gen 11:6-8, New American Standard).

By highlighting this story, perhaps Isbell implies that modern science is guilty of a similar infraction against some deity’s “sovereign power”. As a “theological affirmation” the Babel myth says nothing about the world at all, outside the sphere of belief of those for whom it is a (true) myth, or the suspended disbelief of the literary reader.

So what if the Bible said that the diversity of human languages stemmed from hubris? Religions say a lot of things. Why should any of it be taken seriously? And what is gained by highlighting science’s alleged inability to probe “theological affirmations”? Nothing but a shoring up of the Bible’s cultural relevance against its growing irrelevance for explaining the history of humanity, let alone natural history. It is a way of reinforcing a humility vis-a-vis a perceived deity whose reputation has taken hit after hit by generations of scientific and other academic research.

Similarly, emotion and value laden language like “sovereign power” and “majestic” says a lot about Isbell’s own subjectivity. For him, the biblical deity does not “relate to human beings via raw human emotions like jealousy or irritation”, and Isbell thinks he can prove this by a further comparison of the flood account of Genesis with that of Atrahasis, a Babylonian counterpart. Before discussing his comparison, however, it is worth pointing out that elsewhere in the Bible, Yahweh is jealous, often irritated, downright vengeful and vindictive, petty, and horribly violent. And none of this gets so much as a foot in the door of  Isbell’s formulation.

Isbell notes that in Atrahasis, humanity is doomed because their noise disturbs the gods, whereas in Genesis, God is displeased with human wickedness. Atrahasis is said to provide “no moral justification” for the god Ea’s warning of the hero Utnapishtim to save himself by building a boat, whereas Genesis has Yahweh warn the righteous Noah.

Nothing is proven by this, however. Isbell has to ignore a lot of the Bible to affirm the essential moral character of the Bible and its god. God’s actions in the Garden of Eden are fairly inexplicable: why even give the people access to the forbidden fruit? Why let the snake near? Isbell also misrepresents the biblical justification for the Flood? The Priestly account in Gen. 6:11-16 sees not only humanity but the “earth” itself and “all flesh” as corrupt. It is clear that a simple moralistic reading of Genesis is inadequate, both as as answer to its scientific impossibilities, and as a point of comparison with other ancient religious literature.

Is metrification morally and theologically defensible? You
be the judge.

Yahweh is certainly capable of violent, and inexplicable outbursts in which huge numbers of people are slaughtered, and the destruction of almost every man, woman and child in the Flood is hardly the kind of morality with which many people in the modern world would be comfortable . Indeed, genocide is ordered by this deity elsewhere in the Bible, and all non-believers are doomed to hell, according to other passages. In the light of this, we can see Isbell selectively picking and assessing passages to create a response to a perceived weakness in sciences’ challenge to religion: its lack of a moral sensibility.

Isbell also thinks that “humans in Genesis are not divided into winners and losers” as they are in other ancient religious literature. While these other cultures saw the king as the image of the god, the Bible is more democratic. “Using the sharpest contrast imaginable, Genesis 1 asserts that it is not just kings, but the mother and father of us all who are created ‘in the image of God.'” But here Isbell is reading things into Genesis. The creation narratives do not talk about other religious conceptions at all! The sharp contrast is Isbell’s, not Genesis’s. That Genesis is a polemic against non-Isrealite cosmologies is a view shared by many other biblical scholars, but it is badly overwrought.

Other scholars sometimes talk of how the writers of Genesis “demythologized” foreign creation myths, eliminating divine combat against forces of chaos andreducing deities to mere sea monsters or or astronomical bodies.  For example, in his introductory text,  The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Michael D. Coogan makes such a claim.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, Genesis 1 hardly “demythologizes” anything since it is a charter myth in its own right. Moreover, if Genesis is polemical against anything, why pick on the Babylonians or Canaanites? Isaiah, Job, and the Psalms have passages which allude to myths of a cosmic battle between Yahaweh and chaos monsters like Leviathan and Rahab, stories quite comparable to other ANE mythology. Why can’t Genesis be a polemic against other Israelite myths? Isbell, of course, does not mention the Israelite combat myths. To create a meaningful response to science he requires an internally consistent presentation of the book on grounds that are marked as “off limits” to scientific inquiry. His chosen ground is morality and he does his best to smooth over, or ignore, its rather rough topography.

It needs to be pointed out that the Bible DOES divide humans into Israelites and others, and on this basis makes a lot of value judgments as to people’s worth. The basis of this mythical division begins in Genesis 10 with the repopulation of the earth after the flood. The resulting families of humanity are variously cursed and their ancestors labelled as incestuous father-rapers (see Gen. 9 for the sin of Ham, and the curse on Canaan, the patriarch of the Canaanites who are to be eradicated, and Gen. 19 for the incestous daughters of Lot, matriarchs of the Ammonites and Moabites. The Bible certainly does divide the world in to “winners” and “losers” through rather sharp and obscene racial profiling.

Again, Isbell’s construction of the Bible’s meaning (at least in his essay) has no place for biblical ideas which do not serve his immediate purposes of protecting the Bible from scientific scrutiny while constructing a “moral” foundation for religon to make good science’s perceived shortcomings. These are only ‘perceived’ shortcomings in view of the falsely grounded comparison Isbell makes between science as competing systems of inquiry. He is judging science by what he wants to find in religion.  Alas for Isbell, though, it is science, and not the Bible, which really problematizes the whole issue of “race” and the relative worth of people.

Isbell’s also notes that Genesis 3’s talking snake is not a deity and “cannot act independently”.  It is quite unlike the serpent of the Gilgamesh Epic who steals the plant of immortality from that book’s hero. But the Genesis serpent does, after a fashion, help keep the man and woman from attaining immortality by getting them to defy God before they have a chance to sample the produce from the Tree of Life. Isbell does not mention that tree, nor does his offer any comment on the Bible’s versions of the Combat Myth.  He writes:

Clearly these early chapters of Genesis are about moral choices, made both by God and by humans. So it is appropriate to turn to Genesis seeking information that science does not have and does not seek.

This is nonsense. Just because a book is about moral choices hardly means it says anything useful or enlightened about such topics. There is, the question of whether the Bible is good guide for morals at all. When we notice how selective Isbell is when if comes to finding relevant biblical passages, we can see that he is not so much getting morals from the Bible as he is reading morals into it.

A good bit of Isbell’s argument rests on some linguistic issues. Isbell argues that the word “create” bara, in Genesis 1:1 does not always mean creation from nothing (see Psalm 51:12, Isa. 41:18-19, Isa. 65:13-14) and that the “alternative” translation, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was unformed and void, …” is equally defensible. This alternate reading implies some pre-existing, albeit chaotic, matter which God then ordered. Isbell is right in saying that this reading is as grammatically acceptable as the “traditional” understanding.

Besides bara, Isbell also examine the word yatzar, “form”, used in Genesis 2:7 to discuss how Yahweh, potter-like, formed a man from the “dust of the ground” in the Bible’s second creation account (the Garden of Eden story).

Here it is obvious that a brilliantly creative act involved not the bringing of something into existence from nothing, but the transforming of an existing substance (“dust”) into a human being.

On the one hand, Isbell notes that the alternative reading of Gen. 1:1 does not contradict the scientifically determined age of the universe. ON the other hand he observes that the biblical claim of humanity coming from the “dust of the earth” in chapter 2 is hardly compatible with the theory of evolution. To resolve this apparent dilemma, Isbell tries to harmonize the Genesis 2’s story of God’s putting the “breath of life” into the dust-man with Proverbs’ depiction of “Lady Wisdom”, a personification of divine wisdom who delivers a lengthy speech in Prov. 8-9.

In 8:22, Wisdom says “Yahweh created me at the beginning of His course”, prior to the creation of the world. From this Isbell draws a curious conclusion.

And since wisdom claims to have been a “confidant” of God who was “with Him at all times” during the process of creation (8.30), it becomes apparent that the “breath of life” breathed into the dust at the time of the creation of the first human in Genesis 2.7 was nothing less than the capacity for wisdom which all other creatures lack.

First, it seems to me that the logical inconsistency between the actual origins of the human species and Genesis’ “dust of the earth”, story can hardly be resolved by an appeal to the metaphorical, symbolic and ephemerally spiritual world evoked by language like the “breath of life” and a personified “Widsom” entity from another book entirely.

This forced harmonization stems from the religious conception of a mutually supporting canon of “scripture” and the resulting obsession with forging links between diverse passages as a problem solving and meaning-creating exercise. It is “apparent” only if one buys 2000+ years of practice inventing these kinds of theological discoveries of the obvious. And what happened to Leviathan and Rahab? Why not include these in the harmonization? Unlike science, however, this creative activity need not embrace all the data but is essentially selective, ad hoc, and open to change the minute a different idea needs to be articulated through another mix and match process.

At this point in his article, however Isbell  returns to evolution, writing that Genesis should not be expected to give a hint of speciation. Rather:

What Genesis seeks to affirm is that the uniqueness of “the earth creature” [Hebrew: ’adam] (male and female!) derives directly from the infusion of the very breath of God. If science discovers that the laws of the physical universe dictate a long process of development through various stages from simple to complex, this affirmation of Genesis still stands. If only wisdom, which is part and parcel of God, constitutes the difference between a human and all other creatures, then Genesis is describing that difference in its own simple theological terminology.

This is the god of the gaps theory in action but its accommodationism is not as comfortably  compatible with scientific knowledge as Isbell would want. Neither is its essential theological points imune to science’s (and other disciplilne’s) critique or invisible to its purview. Evolution holds that uman intelligence is a product of nature and not a “gift” from outside. Indeed, there are levels of intelligence in other species, too. By creating a category called “Wisdom” and seeing it as fundamentally different from natural intellectual capacities, Isbell is sharing with the fundamentalists a sharp dichotomy between humanity and other earthly species, a distinction that is profoundly anti-science and deeply mythic.

1871 cartoon by Thomas Nast

What is really offensive to many fundamentalists is the idea that evolution displaces humanity from its pride of place as the crowning glory of divine creation.  Isbell also seems more than a little concerned about this.

Savage Chickens! The best chicken cartoons in the world.

No one likes being an uncivilized,
itch-scritching monkey, but hey, its a living.

Isbell’s category of “Wisdom” is to human intelligence what the cargo-cultist’s airplane is to real aerodynamics: a symbolic construct designed to combat a percieved “foreign” hegemony.

Perhaps Isbell’s true colours are shown in his conclusion in which he asks (perhaps only rhetorically):

What if science is correct and the earth came into being over a period of millions or even billions of years?

I don’t really understand his reticence to admit to the great age of the universe, unless he has some sympathy with the YEC position. Why hedge one’s bets like this if the results of scientific research really pose no threat to religious “truth”? He is right to regard Genesis as dealing with the religious meaning of human existence and the world. The same can be said of any religious cosmology, be it Hindu, Scientologist, Wiccan, or aboriginal Australian. All of these traditional cosmologies stood in a relationship to secular science’s description of the universe; that is, any points of contact between them are circumstantial, or reflect the influence of science on faith, not faith on science. These other religious systems are not, however, in equal standing in the eyes of Isbell as the Bible is without comparison.

That being said, the core affirmations of Genesis stand in unrivaled beauty and timeless theological value: the belief that the created world is fundamentally “good,” the affirmation that human beings enjoy a special status which brings a sobering challenge of responsibility, and the conviction that a unique divine deity acted alone.

The “core affirmations of Genesis” are, of course, the product of Isbell, not the writers of Genesis. He continues:

In His own time and for His own purpose, the creative hand of God brought beauty, order, structure, and purpose to what had been merely a formless void before He began to act. For reasons that are not explained, God also chose to “create” human life from the lowly dust of the ground. This is a clear case of the movement of a substance from one stage to another, higher plane. And as the citations of the Psalmist and Isaiah show, the creative power of God remains at work long after Genesis, transforming the human heart, recasting the structure of nature, and overturning an evil social and political order for good.

Here, Isbell re-creates a timelessness in face of the challenge of sceince which casts humanity not as “a little lower than the angels” or even a little higher than the apes, but simply as an accidental product of a vastly complex but wonderful universe. The “core affirmations” and “timeless” ideas are simply Isbell’s own created structures of legitimacy for religious ideas to which the scientific world view will not (or at least should not) surrender pride of place.

Only God could have “formed” humanity from the dust because only God can infuse a lump of clay with the spirit of “wisdom” that makes one human. Only God has the power to create and recreate nature and society. This is not faith in search of evidentiary proof, but faith that welcomes and rejoices with every new discovery, secure in the knowledge that faith and science use two different methods of inquiry, and that they can neither prove nor disprove the other.

Of course only God could have “‘formed’ humanity from the dust”  because he is the only deity in the story! But humanity was not really “‘formed’ from the dust”. This is metaphorical, figurative speech, that operates within a story world and should not be taken as literal, by Isbell’s own admission. Again, Isbell axiomatically dismisses any challenge to his “faith” though science. Here is a “core affirmation” of Isbell, that places science in the role of cheerleader for God: accommodation through segregation.

As our knowledge of the physical universe grows, the time has come for all parties to be reminded that the biblical accounts are not concerned at all with physical science. Science and theology are two separate disciplines, each with its own independent integrity, and dragging either one into the classroom of the other is academically disingenuous. Science neither proves nor disproves the Bible, and the Bible tells us nothing about science. Period.

As a religious statement, Isbell’s points of view are his own to hold. Besides seeing them as a religious response to secularization and science, the secular scholar should leave him to it. When Isbell charges that it is academically disingenuous to affirm a contrary ideas to his own, however, it is fair for secular critics to strike back. Certainly the Bible does tell us nothing about science, but science and especially the social sciences, can tell us a LOT about the Bible and its claims about history, humanity and the cosmos. Hell, the birth of morality itself has an origin in human evolution and academic study of the development of  culture and science can likely tell us a lot about that, too. A comparative religion study can also reassess religious claims to the Bible’s uniqueness (and often has). What is academically disingenuous is marking the Bible off from critical scrutiny while not being forthcoming about its own internal contradictions and complexities, and the subjectivity of one’s own theological interpretation.

The Bible has been beaten to a pulp by science. That Isbell uses the pulp to make a new paper mache biblical edifice that is purportedly impregnable to science only underscores secular academia’s success in attacking the foundations, uniqueness, and relevance of biblical “knowledge”.

Genesis is affirming that the world as the authors knew it was “good,” that it provides everything we need for existence, and that human existence must be enriched through spiritual and societal growth defined as obedience to the biblical perception of the God of the universe.

Ok, so the Bible claims we must become spiritually enriched through obedience. I don’t disagree. But why should anyone give it any heed? The notion of an internally consistent Bible as the revelation of moral deity with some transformative power over humans is itself is a mythic construct. As a mythic-maker, Isbell is simply doing what myth-makers have always been doing, recreating tradition in new situations, and if recreation doesn’t work, wholesale inventing. Scholars of mythology and secularism may take interest in Isbell’s work as the topic of further research, but his views do not really establish limits of science, the social sciences, or even biblical scholarship.

To bring this overly long rant to a close, I would posit that religious accommodationism of the intellectually segregated sort as advocated by Isbell (among others) offers only a slightly less dangerous threat to secular intellectual endeavours than that of young earth creationism. While Isbell and his co-religionists would support the teaching of evolution and the old universe, it still imposes indefensible limits on the scope of scientific research. Accommodationism suggests that science and other fields of study should be the willing guardians of religious “truth” and that makes it intellectually offensive, to say the least. Isbell is not calling for the advancement of knowledge but its curtailment. And since he is himself, a scholar of religion, that is a sorry situation indeed.


Deep Packed Chopra believes the infinite. Whatever the heck that is

I’ve been meaning to make some more substantial posts of late in response to all of the comments people have been making about my secular biblical studies posts, but, alas, there is marking to do. So I’m just making the odd silly post for a distraction. Like this:

Couldn’t resist. Found this somewhere on line a long time ago and thought I would forward it on:

Ah, but there are people who know about Quantum Mechanics. Whatever the heck that is.