To What End? A Response to Niels Peter Lemche
By Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
I am not sure that Dr. Lemche and I disagree as much as it might appear in his essay, Why Biblical Studies are Necessary. Any disagreement stems from the fact that he has misread some of my statements in The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007) and in my essay, The End of Biblical Studies as a Moral Obligation in Secularism and Biblical Studies (London: Equinox, 2010), edited by Roland Boer.
In particular, Dr. Lemche seems to misunderstand what I mean by the end of biblical studies. First, the end of biblical studies contains a double entendre. In one sense, the end refers to the termination of biblical studies as currently practiced. In a second sense, the end refers to the purpose of biblical studies.
On p. 341 of The End of Biblical Studies, I clearly state that I don’t intend to cease studying the Bible altogether. I want to end THE WAY the Bible is studied. In fact, I provide three scenarios on that page:
1) Eliminate biblical studies completely from the modern world.
2) Retain biblical studies as is, but admit that it is a religionist enterprise.
3) Retain biblical studies, but redefine its purpose so that it is tasked with eliminating completely the influence of the Bible in the modern world.
I stated there that I do not advocate the first option, at least for the moment, because I do believe that the Bible should be studied, if only as a lesson in why human beings should not privilege such books again. My objection has been to the religionist and bibliolatrous purpose for which it is studied.
The second option is actually what is found in most seminaries, but we must advertise that scholars in all of academia are doing the same thing, though they are not being very open and frank about it.
I prefer the third option. The sole purpose of biblical studies, under this option, would be to help people move toward a postscriptural society. The third option is also the most logical position, given the Bibles alien and unethical character. Any text that at any time endorses genocide, infanticide, slavery and other practices the world consensus deems unethical today should forfeit its right to serve as an ethical authority in the modern world.
No amount of theologizing and whitewashing will make those biblical practices or ideas redeemable any more than Mein Kampf is redeemable by using some of analogous apologetic techniques we witness in biblical studies (e.g., appeals to the ethics of the time, greater good theodicies, focus on supposed anti-imperialist impulses, socio-rhetorical contextualizations, etc.).
In addition, I dont think that my proposal would result in surrendering the study of the Bible to seminaries or to religious fundamentalists. Rather, my third option entails an obligation upon secular academia to assume a more active role in challenging the theological approaches one sees in seminaries.
The third option entails rendering seminaries themselves obsolete because, if secularists are successful, no one will be interested in making the Bible any more relevant than Homers Iliad is today. In my vision, the study of the Bible would simply be undertaken in the same way we study Homer’s Iliad, and nothing more.
If secularism is successful, any use of the Bible as an authority in the modern world will be considered a misuse of the Bible. Otherwise, the “the misuse (mentioned by Jeremy in the comments thread to Lemches essay) of the Bible often refers to the use witnessed in an opposing theological viewpoint. In such cases, any accusation of “misuse of the Bible is based on a faith claim that is no more verifiable than the use deemed proper by the one accused. Charges of misuse often are simply another effort to whitewash biblical ethics.
Dr. Lemche believes that a fundamental mistake of mine is to speak only to an elite academic group. However, I have expended a lot of time in The End of Biblical Studies documenting the fact that the importance of the Bible is not really coming from the masses or from below.
Rather the Bible-reading masses are the victims/consumers of a mass marketing scheme perpetrated by the biblical studies professoriate, a media-publishing complex, and an ecclesial-academic complex that is centered on preserving its own relevance. Biblical studies, in its religionist form, is simply part of the detritus of a collapsing, diluted or mutated Christian empire.
Historically, most interest by the Bible-reading masses has been driven from above, as I pointed out in my B&I essay, In Praise of Biblical illiteracy. In The End of Biblical Studies, I provided statistics and surveys of Bible reading among Christians to support my argument, whereas Dr. Lemche provides no equivalent statistics to validate his assertions.
Accordingly, we must address the continuing bibliolatry in the academy to explain why the non-academic masses are still operating with the belief that the Bible should be privileged at all.
But overall, Dr. Lemche and I probably agree that ignoring the problems caused by the continuing religionism in academic biblical studies will only render biblical studies even more irrelevant in secular academia.1
1 For the record, some scholars have begun to interact with The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007) or related items, and these include: Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Democratizing Biblical Studies: Toward an Emancipatory Educational Space (WestminsterJohnKnoxPress, 2009), pp. 38-41; Dora Mbuwayesango and Susanne Scholz, Dialogical Beginnings: A Conversation on the Future of Feminist Biblical Studies, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 25, No. 2, Fall 2009): 93-103; James A. Metzger, Where has Yahweh Gone? Reclaiming Unsavory Images of God in the New Testament, Horizons in Biblical Theology 31, no. 1 (2009):51-76.