Stephen Young on Inerrantist “Protective Strategies” (Skinner)

A few weeks back I had the privilege of reading two articles by Stephen Young, a very bright Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies Department at Brown University. I had intended to blog about them sooner, but running six courses and trying to meet a heap of deadlines seems to have prevented me from getting around to it. (This is why I’ve been virtually absent from this blog for the past month!) I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you had already read the first of these two articles, as there was something of a “buzz” about its publication–at least in my social media circles. The first article is entitled, “Protective Strategies and the Prestige of the ‘Academic’: A Religious Studies and Practice Theory Redescription of Evangelical Inerrantist Scholarship,” and just appeared in the most recent fascicle of Biblical Interpretation. Here’s the abstract:

This article examines how Evangelical Christian inerrantist scholars theorize their biblical scholarship and its relation to the broader academy, highlighting (1) their self-representation as true academics, and (2) the ways they modulate historical methods to prefer interpretive options that keep the Bible inerrant. Using these characteristics of inerrantist theorizing, the article redescribes their scholarship in terms of the religious studies rubrics of “protective strategies” and “privileging” insider claims. It then exploits this redescription to explore various characteristics of inerrantist religiosity from a Practice Theory vantage point, noting especially inerrantist religiosity’s highly intellectualized nature as well as features of its fields of discourse production and consumption, and their participants, that differentiate them from broader academic fields focused on the Bible. Overall the article thus provides a detailed positive account of inerrantist scholarship and introduces scholars to the utility of this data set for studying contemporary religiosity and religious “protectionism.”

The second article (not yet released, but also in the queue for publication in Biblical Interpretation) is entitled, “Maximizing Literacy as a Protective Strategy: Redescribing Evangelical Inerrantist Scholarship on Israelite Literacy.” That article builds upon the first and applies Young’s more generalized insights to a specific set of discussions within Hebrew Bible studies.

Have you ever been listening to someone talk about a subject in which you have some experience or maybe even some expertise and thought, “This person said exactly what I would have said if I had thought to say it that way”? That’s the experience I had while reading Young’s essays. Rarely would I describe myself as “riveted” when reading such technical academic articles, but these two were exceptions. Using a Practice Theory approach, Young admirably articulates scholarly and sociological trends within the subculture of the inerrantist evangelical world with such precision that it left me thinking, “I wish I would have written this!” I won’t attempt to summarize the two articles in this post, though I did want to point them out and encourage readers of this blog to give each article a careful read.

At the end of the day, these “protective strategies” that Young identifies are a means to guarding the claims and status quo of inerrantist evangelicalism, and to a much greater degree, preserving the entire culture. The type of special pleading and question begging that are so obvious to those on the outside are missed by the inerrantist insiders because of a certain strategy that is rooted in the practice of impressing consumers with seemingly erudite claims (e.g., “I have read the Greek NT 20+ times,” “in my personal study of the Syriac manuscripts,” etc.). Young writes (and I have to admit that this made me chuckle):

At the same time, however, it would seem that consumers in this field are either unable to or uninterested in critically assessing actual success in this academic and historical engagement. Put crassly, the impression of academic mastery matters, not the substance. Finally, some consideration beyond those of standard academic-historical methodology seems to operate on this point for inerrantists, a consideration that augments their historical scholarly practices (emphasis mine).

One reason why Young’s articles have resonated with me is that they speak beyond the everyday categories that make up my professional existence to something visceral that resides deep within me. Many people who do what I do for a living were led to this profession through a strong confessional commitment. As someone who once clung tightly to the trappings of the evangelical inerrantist subculture and ultimately found that narrative both deficient and oppressive, it is empowering to have someone put a name to the ways in which this subculture continues to exercise its influence over the lives and beliefs of so many. There is little doubt that those whom Young has identified in these two articles (and their supporters) will soon offer a crafty response. After all, the “robust response” is a hallmark  of the inerrantist evangelical approach. I have to admit that I look forward to seeing what type of response ensues. For now, I say kudos to Young for honestly and bravely articulating the religious and social trends that keep well-meaning religionists trapped in such an oppressive existence.

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9 thoughts on “Stephen Young on Inerrantist “Protective Strategies” (Skinner)

    • Matt,

      It’s pretty thick stuff. I don’t think most undergraduates (at least not the ones I teach) will be able to wade through it successfully. Perhaps you could contact Stephen and ask him to Skype in and talk about his conclusions?

  1. Young’s essay–I’ve only read the first one–is hardly brave because the insiders whose views he cares about are not the inerrantists he criticizes. Inerrantists are not the only ones who are guilty of protective strategies and privileging insider claims.

    • David, thanks for commenting. I should say that I recently read your articles in CBR on the Jew/Judean issue and they were very helpful for a piece I was writing.

      On your comment: would you care to elaborate? I’m not sure I fully understand the substance of your comment.

  2. Thanks for your reply, Christopher. I’m sorry for the lack of clarity in my initial comment. I guess I was try to say two different things: First, judging from the online reaction to his article, Young is writing for a supportive in-group. One reason for the support, of course, is that the essay is well done, and the idea of examining inerrantist scholarship from a religious studies perspective is brilliant. Still, his essay did not strike me as particularly risky. (See this post by Scot McKnight for similar thoughts about a quite different in-group: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/02/02/tgc-women-and-krish-kandiah/).

    Second, I agree with Young that (some) inerrantist scholars are guilty of protective strategies and of privileging insider claims, but it is not as though inerrantists are the only ones who are prone to these temptations. It seems to me that the article is a sophisticated attempt to label inerrantists in general as pseudo-scholars, and I think this paints with too broad a brush. Readers unfamiliar with the world Young is describing won’t know to distinguish between the absurd statements of a Thomas or a Farnell, and the more measured work of other inerrantists. I do not self-identify as an inerrantist, but I don’t question the motives or the scholarly credentials of those who do, simply because they belong to ETS.

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