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The Unbearable Idealism of Biblical Scholarship

By Roland Boer
University of Newcastle
Religion and Theology
May 2011

At nearly every biblical conference, one comes across the same type of paper: read a biblical text in this way, goes the argument, and we can change the world. It may be an effort to counter a negative text, one that espouses patriarchy, or economic exploitation, or racism, or (early) communism, attempting to ensure that the dreadful effect1 of the text in question is blocked in order to encourage human flourishing. Or it may be an interpretation that uncovers a biblical mandate for helping the homeless or the colonized, encouraging peace, or cuddling your pet ferret. Or it may espouse an environmental ethic, identifying subversive voices that suggest we should tread lightly upon the earth, if not listen to the voice of (created) earth. Or it may be a biblically-inspired defense of private property, the sacrosanct individual, wealth and rampant exploitation of one’s fellow human being. One may hear a paper arguing that Paul, for example, was a proto-feminist, an eco-activist, an anti-colonial and anti (Roman) imperial agitator, or indeed the first protagonist of “family values” and the market economy. It matters not whether the argument comes from a mildly left or rabidly right political position. The underlying drive is the same: this interpretation may well contribute to making our world a better place in which to live (from the perspective of the interpreter in question).

I am less interested here in the overt but rarely noticed contradiction generated by the setting of such a paper: it usually takes place in a plush, chandeliered five-star hotel room, delivered by someone who has spent an inordinate amount in travel and hotel costs. I am far more interested in the implicit idealism of such an approach to biblical interpretation. In other words, the unchallenged assumption is that if we can change the ideas of others who read these texts, we can thereby influence their actions in a way that would benefit our human, animal, and earthly society. The key to change is a change in attitudes; assume one and nearly all will change their attitudes and act accordingly.

Is that not how people function? Is that not natural to human behavior? Are not our ideas the key? Unfortunately, that is both a conservative and a false position. It is conservative since it moves from idea to deed, from belief to behavior, from attitude to action. And the one who most infamously espoused that approach was the arch-aristocrat, militantly anti-democratic and elitist Plato: Ideas make the world go round. That idealist position is false because it neatly sidesteps the messy material and social causes of our acts. Empires collapse not because people think they should, but through economic decline, invasions, and environmental degradation. Women take crucial roles in societies due to social and economic necessity rather than speeches and tracts. Ecologically sustainable life happens through the pressure of economic forces and not simply because we think it is a good idea. A non-oil reliant future becomes a reality once the demand for oil outstrips supply, prices sky-rocket, and we are forced to find alternatives; not because someone suggests we should.

The problem is that idealism seems such a natural position, especially for intellectuals like biblical scholars. Indeed, biblical scholars are by default idealists. Why? We work with texts and opinions and arguments all the time. We read, teach, write, speak, and persuade. We have been trained long and hard to believe that what we think and say and write will change people, or at least change the accepted opinion concerning the understanding of a text. We hold that the interpretation, say, of Aaron’s rod, or of the daughters of Zelophehad, or of Elisha’s floating axe, or of Ezekiel’s smelly loin-cloth, or of Paul’s remarkable ability to resist snakebite, or whether Paul communed in the seventh heaven with Philo or the Stoics, or of the advisability of a little wine with our dinner, is absolutely vital. And we spend inordinate amounts of time analyzing the texts themselves, checking what others have written about these texts, and arguing endlessly about them. Ideas are our stock and trade, so we assume that the world operates in the same way.

We also like to think that we are far more important than we really are. And the only way we can kid ourselves concerning our self-importance is to project our default idealism on the rest of the world. Our ideas do matter, we like to think, and the world had better take notice – just as long as we do not actually need to go down to the street from our comfortable offices and get dirty. After all, when was the last time a troop of biblical scholars seized power in a revolution? Does anyone recall when the program committee at the SBL was last arrested en masse for civil disobedience? And when did the SBL last attempt to establish an alternative economy?

Do not get me wrong: I do not argue for the sheer unimportance of ideas. Rather, they are part of a much larger mix. Ideas find themselves jostling among economic production and consumption, social relations, the tussle of some serious politics (and not the sham of our parliamentary democracies), judicial decisions, and cultural representations. In short, ideas are one small part of a far greater material whole. Relativized and cut down to size, these beloved ideas become the runt of the materialist pack.


1 Or “reception,” as the fashionable and problematic term of German provenance would have it today.