Fox Creek February 2020

The Snags of Scholarship

The article I am linking today, was published in 1975. It represents some of Walter Wink’s life and scholarly journey, and provides insight into our own. It is especially worth reading if we are wondering about the place of study and scholarship in a religious life. Wink's title was How I Have Been Snagged by the Seat of My Pants While Reading the Bible.

Wink was completing his PhD dissertation in his first parish.

Once during that period the chairman of the church’s official board asked me why I never preached on any of the New Testament passages which I was so exhaustively exegeting. I didn’t know. It was odd: I couldn’t say why, but I was very certain that I could not.... Now it is characteristic of most of us that when we uncover such anomalies as these, we dismiss them as aberrations of our own personal experience.

If nothing else, this article by Walter Wink should remind us that those "aberrations of our own personal experience" are rarely insignificant. They are telling us something about ourselves!  The question is, "What are they telling us?"  In Wink’s case the message was this:

Simply but quite precisely put, the historical-critical approach to biblical study had become bankrupt. Not dead: the critical tools have a potential usefulness, if they can only be brought under new management. But on the whole, the American scholarly scene is one of frenetic decadence, with the publication of vast numbers of articles and books which fewer and fewer people read. Most scholars no longer address the lived experience of actual people in the churches or society. Instead they address the current questions of their peers in the professional scholarly guild. The net result has been a gathering malaise, a crisis of morale, and a dawning recognition that what was once a vital contribution to the emancipation of people from the constrictions of dogmatism has become a new constriction in its own right.

Wink suggests that most biblical scholars entered the field called by a  hope of “human transformation.” He says this is lost in an inappropriate homage to “objectivity.”

…ineluctably we found ourselves jettisoning the very questions and interests that led us to begin. We were caught in the web of intellectual objectivism, with its pretense of detachment, disembodied observation and uninvolvement as the ideal stance of the researcher. Bultmann had already so clearly exposed the false consciousness of objectivism that it seems incredible that, rather than being in decline, it is flourishing. … This at a time when the physical sciences were beginning to repudiate objectivism!

As a theological student I found a number of responses to the historical-critical approach. A number of us were roasted by wives or friends when we mentioned some of the new insights we had gained. We had “lost our faith”, or “become heretics.”  I think the more timid of us began to reject the opportunities the historical-critical approach right then!  But facing the fear allowed us to gain the best insights of what the original authors and listeners were talking about.  Then, with some measure of enlightenment, we were at liberty to wonder what relevance the text might have to our current situation. It seems so obvious now, but then there was a great fear that somehow we might lose God in the process.

What I have discovered for myself is that avoidance of the historical critical method is not the approach to take.  Avoidance means we go through life, reading our Bibles, unaware of our own biases and and the biases of our culture.  We unconsciously place the concerns and misunderstandings of our time into the mouths of the biblical authors, in a way that horrifies us if we become aware of it! We sincerely want to hear what the Bible says. Unless we take the best critical knowledge available, we will not hear; we will ride roughshod over the text.

Of course the best knowledge may be wrong!  We may not have all the information that is available when we come to the text, or have a commentary which has since been shown in error concerning the point we are considering. But this is no reason to avoid the work.  It is possible as we cross a busy city street, that we will misjudge the traffic or not see an oncoming vehicle.  Despite this, we would never consider crossing the street blindfolded, without looking!

Part of this critical approach requires us to be equally analytical of ourselves.  Any attempt towards objectivity has to seek some objectivity about what motivates us! Wink says

I had, in my book, discussed the importance of "exegeting the exegete," of bringing under analysis not only the analyst’s attitudes and reactions to the text, but also his social situation, his vested interests, the political implications of his or her work -- especially if it has none.

This is crucial. Those "aberrations of our own personal experience" are only the beginning of our own involvement in the exegesis.  There are many more which we simply have not noticed. Unless we are careful to examine ourselves, our unreflective objectivity will simply be a reflection of ourselves.

April DeConick (Prof at Rice University) says the Jesus Seminar Jesus is bankrupt. She says at one point "This Jesus is nothing more than a constructed person who exists only in our imaginations." In a comment on this blog I said

The thing I've never quite understood, is why we ever thought the Jesus Seminar would succeed at anything concrete, given that the achievement of the first search for the historical Jesus was a dim reflection at the bottom of a well of those theologians! What I realise from [the discussion on the blog] is distilled in April's words: "I like that poet/rebel/healer fighter for peace and justice who sticks it to the man. He lives his integrity to the death and thus inspires change and hope. Did he exist? No. He's a construct that resonates with many including me." What the Jesus Seminar has done for many is demolish an old Jesus, and bring to light a new one which resonates with our time. Seems to me that's the point of theologising generally. It goes wrong when we believe it.

The issue is not to be objective. This is not possible in the study of Scripture (or most subjects.) The thing is to become aware of where we are not objective, as much as possible, so that awareness can also inform us.  In doing this we are on the journey Fred Plumer talks about.

… a response to the slow unveiling of the secrets of the universe that continue to expand our understanding of this awesome and often unfathomable creation… a response to the ongoing scholarship that has exploded our understanding of biblical times, the historical Jesus and the development of religions in general. I have always assumed that the progressive church was both a response to and a search for truth....

Becoming aware of ourselves was another great hurdle when I began study.  We were resistant to new insights, especially those not couched in familiar theological rhythms. A friend told me his Sociology of Religion lecturer at the University said, “I feel like I need to go to the pub and get drunk after a tutorial with you lot.” We do not like to look at ourselves, except through the time honoured mantras of sinners who are forgiven. In his 1975 article Wink called this mantra a “karma of this cycle of self-deprecation” which needed to be broken.

Wink goes on with a fascinating critique of the individualism of the time (which is not much changed since 1975.)  He saw that unrecognised and uncritiqued individualism led to exegesis and faith which “generally tended to remain privatized, individual, personal.”  He describes his frustration with this “ideology of individualism, [which] … exists to protect racism, sexism and the class system of capitalism.” He concludes  we have to change from “an interpretation of Christianity which resolutely avoids addressing the principalities and powers.”

if people are liberated from a bad sense of themselves without any sense of mission to change the conditions that waste human beings in such a way, then justification by faith becomes a mystification of the actual power relations, and the Christian gospel is indeed the opiate of the masses. And study of the Bible which avoids facing these issues becomes a justification of the status quo.

Historical-critical study of the scriptures, and engagement with other disciplines of studies like the social sciences, offers us enormous freedom. These things are not to be avoided, but embraced. It is embracing the totality of reality, as much as we are able, that we find freedom, and that which we call God. Wherever I have ruled subjects “off-limits”, or shied away from issues, I have begun to lose that freedom.  I have begun to find myself locked in to something which inevitably becomes unreality.

Walter Wink’s article is here.


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