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Paper, Interface Conference, Maynooth

Introduction

The lay biblical scholar can sometimes find themselves existing in an awkward, liminal position. This is because they straddle several of the divides which currently split society. The most obvious duality is the “dual citizenship” with academia and with a particular faith tradition. The audience here is probably quite familiar with the kinds of hostilities that periodically assert themselves between so-called proponents of faith versus reason, or as it is often styled, religion versus science. The believing scholar certainly cannot subscribe to a dichotomy between these two poles. Nevertheless, it seems that the real tensions arise not directly from this “dual citizenship,” but through tensions within each of these two loyalties.

Within the realm of academia, a tension can exist between the ideal of academic disinterestedness and the realization for the biblical scholar that their overriding concern with the text is actually rather interested. One of the great advances in western civilization was the development of academic freedom and the concurrent commitment to seeking knowledge for its own sake, without direct recourse to its utilitarian potentials or deference to vested party lines. The advent of critical methods which applied to the biblical texts the same considerations as applied to other objects of study is in no small part indebted to this tradition. The results of such study have and continue to have great value. Nevertheless, the Bible retains a living relevance to the lay scholar which challenges this disinterested approach. Just as it can be argued that a religion can only be properly understood from the inside by a believer, so a similar argument stands for the Bible: in some ways it can only be properly understood as scripture, not merely as artefact. Thus for the believing biblical scholar, it can be difficult to decide the appropriate attitude to take towards the text at any given juncture.

Possibly even more disconcerting can be the tensions which arise from within the faith context. These can vary significantly depending on the particular group. The American Protestant communities—particularly of the more Fundamentalist or Evangelical strains—can be quite hostile to academic study, particularly as it relates to the Bible. Indeed, the origins of the Fundamentalist movement are intimately related to reactions against the so-called “Higher Criticism” of the scriptures. Thus, in many Christian circles, the lay biblical scholar is suspect, reeking of the sulphuric smell of ivory towers. A different kind of issue can arise from more sacramental traditions: the lay biblical scholar can struggle to be taken seriously due to their lack of ordination. Since preaching is traditionally the reserve of priests, the lay biblical scholar can find their knowledge viewed as too secular for quite different reasons as the previous. In both of these contexts the lay biblical scholar can find themselves all intellectually dressed up with nowhere to go. Often adding insult to injury are lacklustre sermons.

Finally, we can note the difficulty that can then arise in determining and writing for different audiences, either an “academic” or “confessional” audience, whether presentation or text. This, however, is a problem with which all professions must deal.

Having laid out our situation, I will now briefly propose three perspectives on the situation of the lay biblical scholar: first, benefits, second, dangers, and third, potential role. I will finish by discussing a current project on which I am working which attempts to provide a space for the lay biblical scholar where they can be of most benefit to their communities.

Benefits of Being a Lay Biblical Scholar

Beyond the inherent good of advanced knowledge in a particular subject, I would like to argue that there are two benefits of being a lay Biblical Scholar. The first is freedom. Although noted above as a potential cause of tension, a lack of ordination can perhaps provide one with a freedom to pursue lines of enquiry which would be difficult for a priest, either out of concern for the needs of their parish or due to the confines of a particular confessional or hierarchical situation. Having skills and knowledge in biblical research means that an ability to delve deeply into matters which concern one’s faith while lack of a formal religious position means the freedom to pursue these studies without institutional repercussions. While ordination provides a platform for pastoral work, it comes with implied strings.

The second benefit is closely tied to the first: the freedom provided by lay status also provides a lack of authority. In line with Kierkegaard I would argue that lack of authority is actually a great boon. Not only does it serve as a check on power, it offers a position whereby those in authority can be critiqued—to use a biblical terminology, it provides the potential for a prophetic role. With authority comes power and the corrupting forces inherent for fallible humans. Those without authority are in an excellent position to see the effects of power on those in authority and to critique abuses. Further, a lack of authority can also help to respect other people’s autonomy and encourage an approach which seeks to use reason to persuade rather than authority to coerce. Any teachings which a lay biblical scholar wishes to distil from their study must be argued and presented to an audience in line with competing arguments—and, in an ideal world—the truest argument wins.

Viewed from this perspective, some of the frustrations and checks involved in being a lay biblical scholar can actually prove to be valuable impetuses towards humility, creativity, and participatory reasoning.

Dangers 

While the tensions around the status of the lay biblical scholar can provide freedom and lack of authority, the situation also carries dangers easily ignored. Perhaps the most common is the tendency to neglect the confessional implications of biblical scholarship. In the exciting heat of academic debate, the implications for the understanding of scripture can be forgotten if not deliberately ignored. After all, treating a text as solely an historical document is in many ways much easier. Not only does it conform to an idea of disinterested enquiry, it also excuses the scholar from the hard work of application and its (often unwelcome) corollary, self-critique. After all, no modern religion is fully equivalent to the system practiced in Bronze Age Israel.

This tendency to forgo the faith context can lead to several outcomes. First, the neglect of the confessional aspect can lead to a patronizing attitude towards those who do use the Bible confessionally, especially the average parishioner who approaches the text in straightforward or literalist manner. Since the scholar reserves all textual work to highly complex, arcane debates, the questions and concerns of the pew-side exegete can appear frivolous at best. This view can become extremely polemical, fuelling the debates still raging behind inter- and intra-denominational disputes, thereby harming ecumenical attempts. It needs to be remembered that the pastoral needs of parishioners are legitimate, and the questions they ask are important.

Since the biblical scholar can thus acquire an unfortunate disconnect, clergy can also disengage with biblical scholarship once their formal training ends. Their liturgical and pastoral duties can seem more important and less liable to scholarly critique. This feeds the problems of biblically illiterate believers and of soporific sermons. The more disconnected biblical scholars become, the less their work can impact and help their own communities. Lastly, the withdrawal from the confessional context leaves a void for hacks and charlatans, willing to display a semblance of wisdom and learning to gain a lucrative following. The phenomenon of corrupt TV preachers comes to mind.

Potential Role of the Lay Biblical Scholar

In light of the above, it can be suggested that the lay biblical scholar could play an important role in several areas of a religious community’s life. Three areas will be discussed here: critique, education, and ecumenical dialogue.

Critique

As a free and non-authoritative voice, the lay biblical scholar is in an excellent position to critique both the organizational hierarchy and the lazy party line. This can take the part of encouraging real engagement with the biblical texts, critiquing sloppy use thereof, as well as serving to check clericalism. Since a real platform for this is lacking, such critique can be maintained on a long term basis most effectively through lay education and work with theologians and ecumenists. I imagine this taking the form of encouraging informed lay biblical reflection, dialogue with theologians, and aiding continuing and informal education. The most effective means for this, however, are still a bit fuzzy.

Given our current context at a theologians’ conference, I would like here to make an appeal to both my fellow biblical scholars and to theologians to take each other’s work seriously, and to engage in dialogue more fully. The two disciplines have developed their own styles, agendas, and jargon to the point that it can be very difficult to profit from the results of recent work done in the opposite field. However, as a biblical scholar coming from a faith background, I think increased dialogue is sorely needed. First, biblical scholars need to take the contemporary reception of the biblical texts seriously. This involves understanding the debates and insights of modern theologians as well as the average parishioner. Second, theologians need to appropriate the results and tensions that arise as a result of critical biblical scholarship. Since literalism is not intellectually tenable, theologians could use some insight into more sophisticated ways of grounding their work in scripture. Biblical scholars need to facilitate them in this task.

Theologians, however, are fellow academics. To truly fulfil their potential as agents of critique, however, biblical scholars need to be willing to engage in the public arena more openly. Uses, references, allusions, and abuses of the biblical texts abound in public discourse. It is rare to see more studied critiques of these simplistic uses. Since the lay biblical scholar has the appropriate knowledge without institutional strings (i.e., lacks authority), they are free to engage in public debate without undue deference to a party line. This kind of engagement would critique many sorts of dialogue: debates between so-called secularists and religionists, debates over the West and Islam, debates over institutional church abuses, and so on. Phenomena such as the Creation Museum in Kentucky or characters picketing with signs declaring Leviticus 18:22 could profitably draw public and church attention to the work done by biblical scholars.

Education

Continuing on from the last consideration, the lay biblical scholar should seek a role in increasing biblical literacy: among parishioners, the general public, and thinkers in general. I am a firm believer in the value of education for its own sake, and as a Christian, I also believe the scriptures still hold relevance today. The Bible’s relevance is beyond its status and history as a “classic” of western literature and art history. To effectively appreciate this value, however, one needs the tools which such an ancient text demands. I submit that the lay biblical scholar is in an excellent position to offer tools for reading the text more critically and more reflectively. Sitting on the border between academic and confessional approaches to the text means that the lay biblical scholar should be familiar with many different kinds of questions: questions of history, transmission of culture, history of theology, and the question of relevance to modern religious life.

Despite this, the modern biblical academy only fitfully attempts to project these kinds of questions into the public domain. Potential opportunities abound and I mention here only a few examples: documentaries on ancient history and western history, discussions on Fundamentalism, school religious education, continuing parish education, and public moral debates. In the context of debates over colonialism, is not the relation between Nahum and Jonah relevant? Or debates over nationalism and immigration, the relation between Ezra-Nehemiah and Ruth? The lay biblical scholar could add much to such debates by merely highlighting relevant texts which have lost their currency in our modern culture. Since the general public is no longer as familiar with these texts as they once were, the mere act of placing the texts in the public eye could contribute to dialogue, even before the question of making scholarship itself accessible.

Finally, the last thought leads to the need for the lay biblical scholar to practice making their work accessible to the non-academic audience without watering down its rigour and vitality. The plethora of vapid devotional titles both attests the need for and lack of meaty works for the general believer. Again, this is an area in which the collaboration between lay biblical scholars and lay theologians could be quite fruitful. Why should more nuanced understandings of faith be limited to the professional guild? Works which can be used by the average worshipper in their own spiritual journeys need not be the preserve of hacks and charlatans. Since the lay biblical scholar can understand the confessional need, they should help fill this lacuna.

Ecumenical Dialogue 

Finally, closely related in my mind to the role of increasing biblical literacy and education is a role in ecumenical dialogue, one which I think is often overlooked by biblical scholars. First, there is the little remarked situation that the guild of biblical scholars is in fact quite diverse: it consists of not only Christians of every denominational stripe, but also members of other faiths and no faith. If scholars can talk to each other professionally across various lines, they should be able to help communities to do the same. Yet, there are two more profound and important contributions the lay biblical scholar can offer. First is related to the role the lay biblical scholar can play in education. Education in general fosters intellectual openness, makes apparent human commonalities, and—ideally—it makes an individual more immune to demagoguery. Since many of the obstacles in relations between communities can be influential speakers who mold community opinions, increasing the ability of those members to question the party line can only improve inter-community communication. This is particularly true when emotive subjects like religion are involved. Further, more in-depth study of sacred texts tends to make superficial and incendiary interpretations more problematic. It is my view that increased biblical education and literacy within the various Christian communities would help to bridge some of the Fundamentalist-Liberal divides.

Second, biblical scholars are in an excellent position to highlight historical perspectives on religious questions. The Bible developed over a very long period of time, and one of the areas of academic biblical study is tracing the development of thought throughout the corpus and in other contemporary texts. Awareness of the way in which one’s own religion has changed, of the number of similar controversies which have previously taken place, of the historical contingency of many things—all of these make overly dogmatic and anti-ecumenical statements more difficult. Biblical study makes the texts harder to use for mere “proof-texting,” by highlighting their complexity. Further, by highlighting the complexity of the texts, such study also highlights the complexity of the questions which they ask. When one becomes aware of how difficult the big questions truly are, it is easier to be gracious to those who answer those same questions differently. Thus, engagement with canonical texts in a rigorous fashion can indeed serve to aid ecumenical dialogue. This potential role, however, is little highlighted by lay biblical scholars. I submit, therefore, that the lay biblical scholar ought to dialogue with ecumenicists as well as theologians. Further, from this the desirability of parish biblical education that is both denominationally and ecumenically-aware becomes apparent. If the average faithful person can learn how their own study of the Bible improves their relation with other communities, perhaps certain tensions can be reduced.

A Practical Response to this Potential Role: Example of BACI

In thinking about the above discussed benefits, dangers, and a potential role for lay biblical scholars such as myself, I have started to attempt a practical response.

Working with several other biblical scholars, I have been involved in proposing what we are calling a “Biblical Association for the Church of Ireland” or BACI for short. The thinking behind this was to provide a forum whereby lay biblical scholars could reflect on how their academic work impacted their faith as well as to attempt to feed such academic work back into the life of the church, in a way which would be of benefit to the Church of Ireland. The reason we pitched it towards the Church of Ireland were several: first, the Church of Ireland does not have any continuing adult biblical education in place; second, we felt a dialogue between confessional needs and academic study needed a concrete context in which to function effectively, and lastly, those involved all happened to be Anglicans in Ireland. We are very aware, however, of the other Christian communities, and do hope to be open to working with other churches.

At the moment we are still considering how such an organization could address the role of the lay biblical scholar and the needs of parishes most effectively. We hope the organization could help address the dangers mentioned above of either the disengagement of scholarship from church life and of a patronizing attitude towards the non-scholars. Perhaps the collection of scholars with such a remit will help mitigate those tendencies. In light of the above musing on ecumenical dialogue, perhaps such a group could sponsor ecumenical discussions between Ireland-based scholars of varying ecclesiastical affiliations.

At present, the working group is thinking such an organization will be able to sponsor conferences, seminars, and study materials for parish use. Further, providing links to resources already available and to scholars working in the country would allow parishes to more easily access material which they may find otherwise hard to find. As a way both of advertising the working group’s attempts and of testing the waters for the sorts of projects which might be effective, the working group—with the assistance of various scholars—has put together a biblical study resource for Lent. The idea was to provide parishes with a collection of biblical texts, with scholarly introductions, notes, and study questions. We chose them around the biblical theme of Creation, and tried to stimulate creative and theological discussion around the chosen texts. The materials are being freely and electronically distributed to any groups wishing to use them.

Once Lent is over, the working group plans to assess the feedback we receive and to see how effective the project was. Did it encourage biblical literacy and education? Did it offer chances to critique the contemporary church? Did it tend towards increasing ecumenical dialogue?

The kind of response presumed by BACI carries certain dangers. Since it is a kind of “institutional” response, it runs the risk of losing its independence (i.e., to ecclesiastical authorities) and of becoming insular (i.e., effecting only members of the group or of the denominational focus). Further, it runs the risk of being rather ineffectual. I submit, however, that if the group can attempt to maintain the goods inherent in the status of lay biblical scholars—freedom used towards critique and education—then BACI potentially could do some good. I further submit that young theologians could work with such organizations towards similar goals.

Conclusions

In conclusion, let us recall the benefits and dangers of being a lay biblical scholar. The freedom to pursue truth unfettered by hierarchical ties is to be lauded, as well as the ability to critique both Church and public dialogue. Further the lay biblical scholar is in an excellent position to work towards ecumenical dialogue in partnership with theologians. Awareness of the benefits of biblical literacy can be a spur towards greater involvement in biblical education.

However, the lay biblical scholar needs to be continuously wary of becoming patronizing toward the average believer or of becoming too ensconced in jargon-filled intelligentsia. Despite the tensions, the biblical scholar needs to try to overcome conservative scepticism towards the academy as well as hyper-sacramental or clericalism. Encouraging broad study of the Bible and its world can simultaneously offer opportunities for critique and prevent the total ghettoization of the lay biblical scholar. We might be stuck in the middle, but we can be stuck in the middle with you.

Jason M. Silverman 
 [Given At the Interface Conference, Maynooth, 5 March 2011.] 
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