Friday, November 10, 2006

Bible Scholar on an Airplane

The SBL Forum has a great essay just posted, "Bible Scholar on an Airplane" (click here). The author, Samuel Thomas, a biblical scholar, makes some apt observations about the perils of revealing our profession in public, especially in situations where one is somewhat trapped. Why is it that everyone seems to be an expert on religion? Why is it that people so easily assume they are on the same religous wavelength with me?? Here is a small excerpt:

I have developed over the years several different responses to questions about "what I do for a living." In the right settings — namely those in which my words are unlikely to be misunderstood or misconstrued — I am perfectly happy to discuss my livelihood and engage people on topics in which I am heavily invested, and I may even claim the Bible scholar epithet. But despite some happy occasions, my dilemma persists; whatever the actual odds of finding myself in an undesirable situation, the danger always lurks that my interlocutor will readily make assumptions about me and the real nature of my work — assumptions that may or may not correspond to my own. He may find my approach to the study of the Bible to be too liberal, overly academic, unnecessarily constraining, exceedingly parochial, heretical, anachronistic, tedious, narrow, or pluralistic. In other words, what I do can become more about who he is and what he thinks I should be doing. This is a problem that I suspect generally does not obtain in the life of the accountant and the salesman, or for that matter the chemist or the mathematician.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the article and I thought it was quite whiny. I run into the same type of thing as a computer programmer. They all come with bizarre preconceived ideas as to what is wrong with computers or what we should be able to do or what would make "everything great". In fact, I imagine that this article is simply the result of the Bible Scholar not being able to see when he does this to others.

The fact is that everyone has an opinion on just about everything they interact with. Welcome to life. Probably half of the problem is because he is unable to communicate with real people.

He should probably work on that.

Sorry to sound so harsh, but this is really just elitism, and it is his attitude which is precisely what is accentuating the problem.

Tue Nov 14, 11:24:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Many thanks for the comment! I like your analogy to the computer programmer. It's helpful. But I still think the case of the Bible scholar may present its own unique set of issues overagainst the public. I should recommend Kevin Wilson's comments on the Forum article at his Blue Cord blog: Kevin points out how in his old Baptist circles, biblical scholars were not even viewed as authorities on the Bible. I think he's right that many Fundamentalists in this country doubt that Bible scholars know as much Bible as, say, folks back home who have memorized 14 different books of the Bible front to back. Hopefully in the case of the computer programmer, at least people respect him or her as "the" expert. However, now I'm sounding whiny! ---SLC

Wed Nov 15, 07:20:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think he's right that many Fundamentalists in this country doubt that Bible scholars know as much Bible as, say, folks back home who have memorized 14 different books of the Bible front to back."

I think the reason for this is a different opinion about _what_ the person is an expert of. I tend to have a basic skepticism about Bible scholars because 99% of the time they are approaching the Bible with a different set of assumptions than I am. Therefore, while they certainly know their subject better than I would, the question is that what they and I consider "important issues" would be so dramatically different that you could almost say that we were discussing two completely different topics.

In addition, the standards for evidence for different questions and answers would vary so greatly that even if we were asking the same questions, the likelihood that we would come to the same conclusion even if we had the same level of knowledge is very small.

Two quick examples:

1) Those that assume that the miraculous does not exist, or even does scholarship under that as a working assumption, is going to have vastly different conclusions about the evidence.

2) Those who value circumstantial evidence above traditional testimony are going to have a radically different view of the evidence than those holding the reverse.

I don't know what happened to the academy, but while someone wasn't looking the Church as a whole and the academy seems to have had a gigantic split. This is a problem for both sides of the split. The Church was disconnected from its mental side, and the academy seems to have been disconnected from its spiritual side.

I think the sides are starting to come back together, but in order for this to happen, those on both sides are simply going to have to strive for better understandings of each other. Trying to avoid the conversation (as this person is doing) is NOT GOING TO HELP. Likewise, assuming that the conversation should only go in one direction is elitism.

I've done a lot of studies about computers, but I still find that listening to my customer is important -- not only for my paycheck, but because sometimes the outsiders will surprise you with pretty darn good ideas! They say it using really horrendous terminology, and most people who try to make conversation only come out looking foolish. But I've found that giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, trying to find out what _they_ mean by their words (which is usually totally different from actual terminology), and trying to figure out what they are trying to communicate, will, if nothing else, promote understanding, and sometimes, I am surprised to learn a small or great something from those on the outside!

But the fact is that this kind of study is way too important for there to be a separation like this, and I find that the attitude that this person was taking is the kind that will increase the divide, not decrease it.

There must be a conversation, and, despite the fact that many in the academy think that lay people are beneath them, the conversation must go in BOTH DIRECTIONS.

Sorry for the rant -- this sort of thing gets under my skin -- probably inordinately so.

Wed Nov 15, 11:26:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

These are good points. In fact, after SBL is over, we should get some of this into the main body of the blog. I do not think that the author of the article would mind having this sort of conversation on a plane! Thanks and Peace, ---SLC

Thu Nov 16, 07:11:00 AM GMT-5  

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