Tomorrow starts a brand new academic year and I am brimming with hopes for you, my students. I love to see the “light come on” in your brains as we cover new terrain. I love those awkward, occasionally uncomfortable conversations about what we’re learning and how it is making you uneasy. Studying the Bible in its social, historical, and religious contexts and in much greater depth than you’re used to can have that effect. I love that what I do with you and how I do it has the evocative power to bring you into and out of moments of intellectual angst and ecstasy. I also love that what we do, day-in and day-out, brings with it the potential to help you learn to change your mind.
Today I sat across from one of you and listened to your youthful, exuberant, and (honestly) half-baked theories about things you have yet to really engage in moments of serious thought. That’s okay. I will walk with you and do my best to help you see things you have not yet seen, just as others have walked with me. Please remember: you are here to learn and learning requires openness. True education means opening yourself to the possibilities that your previous thinking about an issue could potentially be wide of the mark and may need some leavening. I want you to know that it’s okay to be wrong or ignorant or misinformed. We have all been there and we are all there, to various degrees, continuously as we go on learning. Much more than that, I want you to know that true education means an openness to changing your mind. Too much of what passes for education is the rearranging or affirmation of your previously held biases. True learning requires that, eventually, you will change your mind about something.
I will make that my mission this semester. So sleep well and I will see you in class tomorrow.
Here’s another gem from the Meeks lectures I mentioned yesterday:
So let us renounce the phrase, “the Bible clearly teaches.” And every time we hear it let us immediately be on our guard. Of course, it is a convenient shorthand to personify the Bible as agent, as teacher. St Paul did that when he quoted a text in Romans 10:6 with the introduction, “the righteousness of faith says…” But let us remember that when Paul said that he then proceeded to give that text a meaning that was outrageously different from its contextual, grammatical, plain sense. In our situation, when people say, “the Bible clearly teaches,” instead of, for example, “we can learn from the Bible if we stand within a certain community’s tradition,” or “we can find these ideas in Scripture if we construe Scripture in such-and-such a way”…. When they make the Bible the agent of their assertions, you see—“the Bible teaches,” not “we teach because this is the way we understand it”—when they do that, they are really masking the locus of the authority they are claiming.
52:39 – 53:55 of the Lecture 4 discussed here. (Update: Thanks to Dave Mackinder for pointing out that these lectures were the basis for Meeks’s book, Christ is the Question [Louisville: WJK, 2005]).
“Specialization [within academic disciplines] enhances concentration and control. It makes possible sustained, intense effort on closely defined tasks. But it also often separates us from just those people to whom we ought to be listening and who might need to listen to us. On the other side of the great divide–in popular culture–we have seen developments that also inhibited the free interchange between professional scholarship and lives of Christian laypeople. First, that radical individualism and subjectivism that has been characteristic of the modern, western world, whose influence on the academic ways of knowing we’ve already talked about in earlier lectures. That individualism and subjectivism have also been deeply embedded in the popular ethos perhaps in North America more than anywhere else on earth. So, as the evangelical scholar James Callahan has pointed out, in the 19th century America, the doctrine of perspicuity–the transparence of Scripture–became a democratized affirmation of religious equality. It was a matter of democratic ideals that anybody’s reading of the Bible was as good as anybody else’s. The Bible thus became ‘the people’s book.’ And with that came that suspicion of the expert, which might have been a healthy antidote to that professionalization and compartmentalization I just mentioned, but in practice, leads rather to something close to anarchy in popular interpretation.”
From 29:41 – 31: 09 of Lecture 4 discussed in my last post.
My own experience in the field resonates with exactly what Meeks is describing here.
I am always looking for resources that I can recommend to students or that I will find helpful for my own thinking about certain issues. Today I have a recommendation that accomplishes both of these nicely. Over at iTunesU, on Emory University’s Jesus and Culture page, I stumbled across a series of lectures given at Candler School of Theology back in 2010 by Wayne Meeks, Woolsey Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Yale Divinity School. These lectures are obviously five years old, but like my 1998 Dodge Stratus (which I purchased in 2005), they were “new to me.” I had a chance to listen to several of these lectures while working in my yard the other day and they’re quite good (as you might expect).
Here’s a general description of the lectures:
The Alonzo L. McDonald Family Chair on the Life and Teachings of Jesus and Their Impact on Culture is supported by gifts from the McDonald Agape Foundation, chaired by Alonzo L. McDonald. McDonald was a longtime trustee of Emory University. The McDonald Agape Foundation “supports lectures and other public presentations that deal creatively and imaginatively with the person and teachings of Jesus as they shape and form culture.”
If for some reason you don’t have access to iTunes (1) you should probably consider joining the 21st century, and (2) you’ll be able to find Professor Meeks’s lectures here (numbers 11-15 on the list). Their titles are as follows:
(1) “Does Anybody Know Jesus?”
(2) “Memory and Invention”
(3) “A Story to Think With”
(4) “The Bible Teaches….”
(5) “Is Jesus the Last Word?”
Given the particulars of my background and biography (which many readers of this blog know) I found lecture number four particularly insightful. Like me, you can cut your grass and trim your weeds while being instructed by one of the great thinkers and communicators in our field.
For the past few weeks, Pete Enns has been hosting guest posts by Biblical scholars who formerly self-identified as evangelical and read the Bible with a rigid hermeneutic (i.e., through the grid of “inerrancy”). Thus far, he has posted his own reflection, followed by those of John Byron, Daniel Kirk, Michael Pahl, and Charles Halton. Today he posted the reflection he asked me to write. I appreciate what Pete is doing with this series and I also appreciated him asking me to contribute. It gave me an opportunity to reflect back on how far I’ve come and on how I understand the Bible today–both as a scholar and a man of faith.