I'm happy today to guest post a dispatch from Elesha Coffman. Elesha is assistant professor of history at Waynesburg University, and in 2011-2012 she will be a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. Her dispatch concerns one session at the just-concluded 2nd Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture. We'll have some other posts about the conference in the days to come.
Do Religion Scholars Read the Bible? (A dispatch from Indianapolis)
Next time you’re trying to get religion scholars’ blood pumping during a post-lunch session deep into an academic conference, try this: Ask them if they have actually read the Bible.
This challenge arose at the penultimate session of the Second Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture in Indianapolis last weekend, a roundtable on “Changes in the understanding and uses of scripture.” Scheduled to give a nod to the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible and to introduce a new project at IUPUI on Scriptures in America, the session included presentations by Charles Cohen, Kathleen Flake, and Charles Hambrick-Stowe. Following their brief comments, the audience was invited to jump into the discussion—except, initially, no one did. Whereas previous sessions had produced a pileup of voices vying for the microphone, this one seemed to have fallen flat.
Another type of anxiety exposed by the show-of-hands kerfuffle concerns the relationship between religion scholars and the subjects they study. Versions of the insider/outsider discussion arose frequently throughout the weekend, beginning with the first session’s extended debate about Richard Lyman Bushman (who wasn’t present) and culminating with Julie Byrne’s meditation on an “ethnographic uncertainty principle,” by which a scholar inevitably changes and might inadvertently destroy that which she seeks to understand. In the context of the Bible session, asking who reads what not only raised questions of scholarly preparation but also of identification with religious subjects—or, to put it in moral terms, humility.