Posted on November 8, 2009 at 12:27 am by Dr. Jim
There was an outpouring support last month for the almost-abolished Dept. of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield. Fortunately, the most innovative department of biblical research in the world was saved. There is some discontent, however.
Ben Witherington III, who teaches New Testament at the evangelical Asbury Theological Seminary, is featured in an article by Collin Hansen in Christianity Today (Oct. 15) about the affair. Hansen writes that the initial vision for the department, originally led by F. F. Bruce had been abandoned.
Bruce, the noted author of books such as Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free and The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, founded Sheffield’s department of biblical history and literature in 1947. But not all faculty have shared Bruce’s conservative convictions. Evangelically minded faculty, including Andrew Lincoln and Loveday Alexander, were not replaced with scholars who held similar views. Other faculty were “bent on the deconstruction of the Bible, and indeed of their students’ faith,” according to Ben Witherington…
Now, as many bloggers and bloggatorial (I just made up a word! I rock!) commentators have pointed out, Witherington simply doesn’t know what “deconstruction” means, but that’s not the real point. The real point is that he is accusing people of attempting to undermine the religious beliefs of the students attending Sheffield University and the University hiring staff based on religious belief (or lack thereof).
moar funny pictures
Stephanie Louise Fisher took Witherington to task in asking him in a comment in an unrelated blog post if he would apologize. She also wrote a brief guest post on the non-faith-descontructing blog of Jim West, writing “I think he doesn’t understand what good critical Biblical scholarship is and ignores the fact that Sheffield encourages students to form their own opinions and do not dictate to them.” Three cheers for Stephanie!
In any case, Witherington said on his own blog:
I doubt there will be a public apology. There are too many wounded in action to account for. Honestly Stephanie, Sheffield did not act wisely in not hiring folks like Loveday Alexander or Andrew Lincoln once they were gone, as they at least nurtured people in their Christian faith.
A bit on an exchange between himself and Fisher ensues, in which he says:
Do a little historical research. Start with F.F. Bruce and the original purpose and focus of the Biblical Studies Faculty at Sheffield. Then compare that to where we are now.
Then he says:
The issue isn’t hiring someone on the basis of their faith especially if they do not have the credentials and the critical training for the job. The issue is deliberately avoiding hiring people of faith, and further the issue is deliberately trying to deconstruct someone else’s faith.
And finally writes:
All the positive testimonies of Sheffield students past and present attest that good things have happened at Sheffield. My own colleague Ruthanne Reese can attest to it. But this in no way comes to grips with those Sheffield students over many years who found the denials of historical substance in the Bible, among other things, not merely disturbing but problematic.
Witherington has also been taken to task by James Crossley (of Sheffield U.) here, here and most recently here, who rather vociferously defends the reputation of the dept. from Witherington’s serious charges.
Rather than simply repeat those points, I’d like to take off in a rather different direction which might not endear me to too many readers, but what the hell? Before turning to a few choice phrases used by Witherington, I’d like to return briefly to the Christianity Today article. There one reads how Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary lamented the proposed closing (despite being rather conservative himself). The article continues:
Bock said dropping the historic discipline of biblical studies signaled a tendency toward secularization in British universities. Others noted, however, that evangelical scholarship is much stronger today than when Bruce launched the department following World War II.
If the proposed closure represented a deliberate turn towards secularism it was certainly a misbegotten one, since that department had already been secular for many years (of course, religious people can do excellent secular work). If anything, the recent situation reflects the common misconception that teaching about religions is essentially a religious act itself. This is hardly a necessary equation but it may have been held by some higher administration folks at Sheffield when they proposed shutting the department down. Folks in biblical studies and religious studies face it all the time. Many people just do not believe that religion can be studied non-religiously. I do not know the history of the department at all, but whatever it was when it started, it became a secular department and has been for some time. I see no reason for anyone to apologize for that. Still, the department has had on staff many ordained clergy over the years.
I think that the more secular a university (or society as a whole) gets, the more it would be willing and wanting to talk about religion as a factor in human history and culture. To refuse to talk about it is to concede the field to religious mystification, and that is the opposite of proper academic goals no matter how you slice it. What happens in, around and through human actions and experience is a fair subject for human inquiry. That is the essence of the humanities and social sciences. Religion is hardly some special dimension of experience or knowledge impenetrable to those who do not share the specific “secrets” of whatever faith someone else holds. Its strategies of mystification and curtains marked “Don’t look behind here” are exactly the sort of things that secular research is intended to probe. To mix a few metaphors, the “wizard” behind the screen is a little short, self-conscious and self-appointed emperor with not a stitch of clothes on. (For a recent example of this kind of thing, read Rick Wadholm’s post on how non-religious biblical scholarship is impossible because his religion is right).
Now, back to Witherington. First of all, what is this “bent on the deconstruction of the Bible,” stuff? He says it like it is a bad thing. As I’ve noted, Sheffield is a SECULAR university. It is supposed to analytically dismantle, poke, prod, turn upside down, inside out, interrogate, question and generally be a busy-body nosey skeptic about ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING IT DECIDES IS WORTH STUDYING! That is simply what universities do. I’m sorry if Witherington never got the damn memo about it, but it is just one of those things most scholars (religious or otherwise) can figure out for themselves. What does Witherington think his religion is OWED by Sheffield University?
In any case, given the large number of people who have been associated with Sheffield and have written about modern reading strategies et. al. for the Bible, it is hardly the case that Sheffield has sought to “deconstruct” as in “destroy” the Christian scriptures. It has sought a myriad of new ways to understand them as the product of human culture and a tool for the creation and evolution of human culture. I suppose for Witherington, that amounts to destruction, but it is a charge that says more about Witherington’s lack of understanding about academia than it does about Sheffield.
And what of the department “deliberately trying to deconstruct someone else’s faith”? No details. But lets suppose the worst case scenario: some faculty member forcing on students a “deconversion” rhetoric under fear of failing exams or having dissertations rejected. That would, of course, be despicable, and any such students have the right to complain to the relevant university (indeed legal) authorities, and should. Is this what Witherington is charging? If so, he had better cough up the details of the “too many wounded in action to account for”. What hordes are these? Sounds more like a martyrdom complex to me.
Here is the clincher. It seems as if the wounded in action are the “Sheffield students over many years who found the denials of historical substance in the Bible, among other things, not merely disturbing but problematic”.
Oh the poor babies!
This calls for a lolcat!
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If there are problems with the historicity of the biblical text a university professor would be doing her or his students a disservice by letting them persist in the belief that such problems did not exist. If the problems are such that the biblical account should be rejected outright, then that is what must be done. Student protests be damned. People unwilling to get with the program should expect to have difficulties.
Historians do not owe Latter Day Saint students kid glove deference to Mormon beliefs about the age and origins of the book of Mormon or the settlement of North America. Palaeontologists do not owe respect to those who propagate misinformation about fossils and proper analytical methods. Moses did not write the Pentateuch, there was no exodus from Egypt that corresponds to the biblical account in any meaningful way, David and Solomon never ran an empire, donkeys never said a word, and once the Romans killed him, Jesus stayed dead, just like dead people are supposed to do. The rest is myth making, and people have been making myths for millennia. Why treat the Bible any differently?
Yet, beyond the troublesome issues of the Bible not being as historically reliable as many assume, or how its multifarious versions, manuscripts and variants complicate the issue of canonicity, or the clear evidence of tendentious redaction, addition, editing, rewriting, messes with perceptions of its unity, there is the fact that people in their late teens and twenties WILL challenge their most dearly held beliefs. It happens to everyone; it is called growing up. One does not have to be religious to experience it.
Universities only shape the nature of the questioning that people would do anyway. This is not a bad thing, either, and universities should not have to apologize for it. Complaining that newer faculty members at Sheffield did not follow the example of their predecessors who “at least nurtured people in their Christian faith” is part of the same ignorant bluster and posturing at which Witherington seems to excel. Professors are not hired to be pastors. At least not at real universities. Universities often hire councillors for students (and staff) going through rough patches, and most (all?) universities also have chaplains, too (are religious students more psychologically needy than their non-religious class-mates?). Religious students can also attend the church, synagogue, mosque, gurdwara or temple of their choice. Why should professors be judged for not tending to the spiritual “needs” of their students? The strength that comes from faith seems rather fragile sometimes.
Of course, professors do not wish their students to become despondent. We wish the best for them, but if they are there to learn about the world as scholarship understands it, then we would be liars if we hid or swept under the carpet what we understand to be the most reasonable conclusions about the world just so we don’t upset someone’s feelings.
Professors in departments of Political Science are not expected to nurture the Conservative, Liberal, Republican or Marxist perspectives of their students. Historians do not have to nurture the conspiracy theories some students accept about JFK, 9/11, or fluoridated water. Mathematicians do not have console students who feel ridiculed for liking the odd numbers more than the even ones. Why should Christian faith have to be nurtured by professors?
I wonder if Witherington would nurture the faith of a Buddhist student (should any attend Asbury), or would he try to convert her?
In a comment to one of Crossley’s posts, Witherington tries to weasel out of his this accusation, saying that he knows secular faculty can’t be expected to nurture faith, but it strikes me as a bit of disingenuous damage control. He continues:
Going forward one of the questions that ought to be seriously discussed is the issue of sensitivity to and tolerance of theological differences in the students and a thoughtful addressing of issues when students feel that pejorative comments about the Bible or about their faith are at the least not fair, and hardly value neutral.
“Pejorative comments about the Bible”? Again, is that a bad thing? What would these precious little debutantes think a fair comment about the Bible is? Good chunks of it strike a lot of people as dreadfully boring. Why should they not say it? The morality of Yahweh is often deplorable, he demands genocide and gives orders demanding that women raped in cities be executed for liking it. He engages in massive corporate punishment while Ezekiel meditates like a little pervert on whore Jerusalem’s breasts. Why should anyone in a post-holocaust, post-slavery, and post-women-aren’t-legal-persons, world say anything good about that despicable old tome? All of the Bible’s literary, ethical, theological values are open for discussion and debate. Why hold back? Dr. Witherington, are YOUR views on the Bible value-neutral?
All of this drives home the need for the guild of biblical scholarship to pay more attention to the great divide between secular scholarship and religious biblical study as an extension of the church’s (or synagogue’s) intellectual engagement with its own traditions. At some point there is nothing but complete incompatibility between the two. The continued blurring is doing no one any good.
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