Sunday, December 12, 2010

50 Books in 50 Years: Book #10

Book #10: The End of Biblical Studies, by Hector Avalos.

Hector Avalos is a professor in the department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Iowa State University. This book is a critique of the profession of Biblical Studies as it currently manifests itself in academic departments, scholarly research and publication, professional societies, and so on. It comes highly recommended by John W. Loftus at Debunking Christianity.

The End of Biblical Studies is certainly an interesting read, and it makes a few good points — and also a few about which I am dubious. Because of its focus on the current state of his discipline, it seems aimed primarily at people already familiar with the field, its academic standards, and its basic canon. Since I am not in the field, I occasionally had the feeling that I was entering a very long conversation midway through. With that caveat in mind, in the remainder of this post I will do my best to detail both my agreements with and my reservations about his views.

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First, our areas of agreement. I'll mention three central ones: a) the maintenance of a sizable profession of scholars whose work produces little or no measurable benefit to society; b) overemphasis on the Bible, to the exclusion of other worthy texts (Avalos uses the familiar jargon of "privileging" the Bible); and c) the failure of Biblical Studies to communicate the complexity, obscurity, and "otherness" of much of the Bible.

Point a) is one that I've addressed in an earlier post in this blog. As I said earlier, I am not in the field of Biblical Studies, so I'll have to take Avalos's word for it that this situation prevails, but I'm inclined to believe him. It would be no surprise to me to find that Biblical Studies suffers from the same ills that plague so many academic disciplines: scholarship that is trivial, insular, incomprehensible, or otherwise a waste of time and energy. Avalos provides a couple of examples, but I expect that the real force of his point is best understood by people who spend their precious hours reading journal articles or attending conferences whose real utility is as examples of scholarly busywork and goldbricking (if not less polite terms).

Point b) I'll accept with some reservations. As before, I can't verify this from personal experience, but it would not surprise me to learn that Biblical Studies absorbs money, or attention, or scholarly time to the detriment of other worthy pursuits. Whatever the field (history, archaeology, literary criticism), there are doubtless many topics that suffer from lack of attention or money, which presumably are in oversupply in Biblical Studies. I can certainly agree with this point, though not quite as far as Avalos wishes to pursue it (see below).

Point c) is essential. It has also been made, in varying forms, by scholars such as Loftus, Bart D. Ehrman, and Jacques Berlinerblau. Avalos does not go into the same level of detail as those other authors, but it bears making repeatedly: the Bible is enormous, complex, internally inconsistent, of uncertain authorship, very different from modern modes of thought, and frequently obscure. (Avalos makes this last point very well in his chapter on translation.) These facts are familiar to virtually anyone with a respectable seminary education, and they should be familiar to anyone who is interested enough to pick up a Bible or attend church services. (They aren't familiar to most of the lay public, though of course popularizations such as Ehrman's have already done a great deal to remedy that situation.) If Biblical Studies isn't getting those facts across, but is contributing to the illusion of Biblical unity and inerrancy, then it is doing the public a great disservice.

If that were as far as the book went, I would be quite enthusiastic about The End of Biblical Studies. Unfortunately, Avalos consistently overstates his case. He declares in the introduction that

Biblical studies as we know it should end. We should now treat the Bible as the alien document it is, with no more importance than the other works of literature we ignore every day. Biblical studies should be geared toward helping humanity wean itself off of the Bible and toward terminating its authority completely in the modern world.     (p. 29)
It's nice to have a clear, unambiguous statement of intent; but Avalos does not do nearly enough to support this thesis. Instead, he spends a great deal of the book pointing out that these aims are not, in fact, currently being carried out by the scholars in Biblical Studies.

A case in point is his frequently repeated assertions that Biblical Studies is "dominated by religionist and theological agendas." (p. 28) I am inclined to believe that a neutral observer would confirm that religious and theological interests lie behind a great deal of what goes in Biblical Studies departments. I am also inclined to believe that this is not really a Dark Secret of the discipline, but entirely normal and to be expected. There are tens of thousands of academically-inclined students in college, and many of them, perhaps the majority, have some religious commitment. If they decide to continue to graduate school, they don't decide which discipline to pursue by random chance; and many will bring their pre-existing interests and concerns into their studies. Avalos notes with some consternation that during his time at Harvard Divinity School, he was one of the very few agnostic students — but is this the fault of Harvard, or the discipline of Biblical Studies? I think that it is more a matter of self-selection among applicants. By the same token, one is unlikely to find many tone-deaf students in musicology departments.

Of course, I should not overstate my own case. If there are instances of Biblical Studies scholars abandoning academic rigor to promote religious belief, that would be a serious problem for the profession. But Avalos does not present many examples of that sort of thing. Mostly, the specific examples he discusses are scholars who evidently do not agree with his thesis that Biblical Studies should conduct itself so as to guide the Bible into cultural irrelevance — granted! And so what? Perhaps their beliefs are wrong and their arguments are faulty; but Avalos's argument does not have much bite unless he can show that those scholars are flagrantly wrong, or dishonest, or writing in bad faith. Refusal to sign on to his program of disciplinary self-annihilation is not, by itself, sufficient to damn them.

We can find similar examples of faulty argument in his chapter on Biblical theology. He asserts that

When considering the meaning of a biblical text for faith communities, two positions can be identified for those who believe there is even such a thing as authorial intent:
A. Authorial intent is the only one that matters
B. Authorial intent is not the only one that matters
If one chooses A, then biblical studies has been highly unsuccessful. We often do not possess enough information to determine what an author meant... If one chooses B, then the only result is chaos and relativism that renders scholarly biblical studies moot and superfluous.
The only result is chaos and relativism? This seems like a blatant false dichotomy: authorial intent as sole criterion, or chaos and relativism. I suspect that many of Avalos's colleagues would argue that if authorial intent is not the only one that matters (and it almost certainly is not), then that's where discussion begins on what else matters. Absence of rock-solid certainty is not the same thing as chaos.

Avalos enlarges on this point immediately afterward, in a way that is even more mystifying:

Faith communities do not need academic biblical scholars to inform them about any original context in order to keep the Bible alive for themselves. So what is the purpose of academic biblical studies in such a case? The answer is that there is no purpose, except perhaps to preserve the employment and status of biblical scholars.
I should remark parenthetically that many faith communities think they need (or want) the assistance of biblical scholars, even if the scholars are not always able to provide definitive, unassailable answers to questions. More to the point, however, is the conflict with Avalos's earlier (and convincing) arguments regarding the Bible's instability, obscurity, complexity, and so on. If the Bible is such a difficult document to come to grips with, then why is Avalos so sanguine here about faith communities' ability to understand it, or interpret it, or put it to use? It almost seems as if he is saying that faith communities will believe whatever they want to believe, about whatever text they decide is the "real" Bible, and scholarly input is pointless. This position, if I'm interpreting it accurately, is not particularly complimentary toward faith communities' openness to education and reason.

Finally there is the matter of Biblical literary criticism, or "aesthetics as apologetics" as Avalos describes it. Most of it is dedicated to refuting arguments that present the Bible as uniquely great writing because of its alleged creativity, or symmetry, or beauty, or what have you. If those arguments do actually claim that the Bible is head-and-shoulders above other ancient writings in these ways, then Avalos's criticisms are on the mark. (I haven't read the original sources, so I can't say whether Avalos presents them accurately.) An unbiased assessment of the Bible will not find that it is uniformly more beautiful, or symmetrically phrased, or creative than any number of other ancient texts. If some other collection of ancient myths had dominated the ancient Near East, probably today's faithful would be trying to prove that those myths were uniquely great in comparison to the obscure Hebrew myths (many of which would probably lie untranslated, like the Mesopotamian texts that are ignored in our actual world).

But, for whatever reason, other myths did not prevail. The myths that played the biggest part in shaping so much of Western culture were Biblical ones. This is our actual history, for better or for worse. Avalos's attitude toward that history reminds me of Paul Fussell's mention of E. E. Cummings in The Great War and Modern Memory:

[A] well-known rumor imputing unique vileness to the Germans is that of the Crucified Canadian. The usual version relates that the Germans captured a Canadian soldier and in full view of his mates exhibited him in the open spread-eagled on a cross, his hands and feet pierced by bayonets. He is said to have died slowly. ...The Crucified Canadian is an especially interesting fiction both because of its original context in the insistent visual realities of the front and because of its special symbolic suggestiveness.    (pp. 117-18)
Fussell then discusses Cummings's treatment of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in The Enormous Room:
His refusal or affected inability to come to grips with traditional meanings can be seen blatantly in his encounter with a roadside crucifix, which he elaborately professes not to be able to identify with or understand. All it looks like is "a little wooden man hanging all by himself . . .":
The wooden body clumsy with pain burst into fragile legs with absurdly large feet and funny writhing toes; its little stiff arms made abrupt, cruel, equal angles with the road. About its stunted loins clung a ponderous and jocular fragment of drapery. . . .
  Who was this wooden man?
This is Positivism with a vengeance. From the stance he has chosen, Cummings would have to pretend not to be interested in the rumor of the Crucified Canadian or not to know what it was about.    (pp. 160-61)
"Positivism with a vengeance": is this where Avalos seeks to lead us? We need not believe that the Bible is uniquely great or beautiful to acknowledge its profound, inescapable influence on so many aspects of our culture. It is difficult to imagine real Western cultural literacy without some degree of Biblical literacy. If Biblical Studies can play an important role in keeping Biblical literacy alive, then it may have an ongoing role in our culture even for those of us who do not regard it as inspired.


Anonymous Phyl said...


I imagine Avalos may be more right about the religiosity of students and scholars in this field than was the case when I got my degrees (1986, 1989). But speaking for the two universities I went to -- Calgary and Syracuse -- that was definitely not the case. There were believers studying there, but in no higher proportion than any other viewpoint.

Re "a) the maintenance of a sizable profession of scholars whose work produces little or no measurable benefit to society," I think that's getting dangerously close to the attitude some governments exhibit when they demand that Classics departments show what "use" their disciplines are, to justify funding. (My answer to that has always been, "If you have to ask, you'd never understand the answer.") I simply don't agree that there is "little or no measurable benefit to society."

Re: "b) overemphasis on the Bible, to the exclusion of other worthy texts (Avalos uses the familiar jargon of "privileging" the Bible)," I would have to disagree again -- at least based on the two Religious Studies departments I knew. It sounds like he's set up a straw man here: he's talking about "Biblical Studies," and then gripes that they "privilege" the Bible. If he'd used a better term -- "Religious Studies" -- then you could look at it more accurately. In both of the departments I knew, there was as much study of the other major religions as of Christianity. At Calgary, you could major in Western or Eastern, and there were several religions in each. Calgary had (and I assume still has) a spectacular Sanskrit program. This is a university in the heart of the Canadian Bible Belt.

Re: "the failure of Biblical Studies to communicate the complexity, obscurity, and "otherness" of much of the Bible," I think he's got some point, but I'd still dispute it. When I went to Bible school, I learned the kind of "unified" view he criticizes -- it was in U of Calgary's department that I actually learned that there were other doctrines and views, and learned some of the real history and development of the Bible. A lot of the more modern understanding of the Bible -- even among fundamentalists -- stemmed from Biblical studies that they rejected, but couldn't help be affected by. If you eliminate Biblical Studies, you eliminate much of what he's actually hoping for, I think, rather than furthering it.

It's possible things have changed really badly in the last 20 years, and I was lucky to have missed the decline. But if things are remotely like what they were like when I got my degrees, I just think he's mistaken. At least from the way you describe what he says. :-)

And you make a great point -- these are the documents, for good or ill, that formed much of the basis of Western civilizations, and Middle Eastern as well. To say we shouldn't do Biblical studies is, to me, even sillier than suggesting that no citizen needs to know about their country's own laws or constitution to be a good citizen.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Joe Victor said...

I now think I was too easy on Avalos. A great deal of the book is characterized by the sloppy reasoning and petulant tone I mention, and I can't really say that I benefitted much from reading it.

(One more annoying thing, while I'm at it: he uses a "kitchen sink" method of criticism, i.e. he will use whatever accusation makes his target sound bad, regardless of what positions are taken in the rest of the book. For example, at one point, he criticizes scholars for being allegedly anti-Zionist, while elsewhere he criticizes someone else for being allegedly pro-Zionist.)

10:31 PM  

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