Do Religion Scholars Read the Bible?

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)

Elesha Coffman

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.

I cannot explain what happened next. I do not remember who spoke first or what was said, but suddenly a gauntlet was thrown: All of the religion scholars in the room who had read the Bible cover-to-cover should raise their hands.

There was a collective gasp, a few tentative hands raised, and then a barrage of responses flying much faster than the microphone could travel. Old jokes about Catholics and liberal Protestants never reading the Bible mingled with personal reflections on Sunday school and the lectionary. One contributor insisted that you couldn’t learn anything by reading the Bible “cover-to-cover,” though she would not suggest an alternate reading plan. Attention to the uniquely Protestant concern behind the question was countered by the assertion that scholars of non-Christian traditions (especially New Religious Movements) consider grounding in those groups’ texts essential, yet some scholars of Christianity feel they can skip that step. Conversation eventually drifted to other topics, including boutique Bibles and scriptural tattoos, and the proposed straw poll never happened.

Struck nerves expose anxieties, and there were at least two types in play here. One is the anxiety that contributed to the separation of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, which was initiated by the AAR in 2003. If the AAR were a ship unfurling its sails to catch the winds of new methodologies and religious expressions, the SBL seemed like the ballast in the hull, bearing the weight of (mostly) Christian traditions and texts and reminding religious studies of its divinity school past. Of course, ballast comes in awfully handy in a storm, and the economic crisis buffeting academic publishing and university budgets helped change some minds among the AAR leadership. The reunification of the two groups’ annual meetings will hardly erase the unease, however. The religion scholars in Indy still seemed very jittery about the Bible.

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.

Tacitly, the straw poll suggested, “Are religion scholars so arrogant as to think they can make pronouncements about American religion without even reading the Bible?” I think that’s the part that really raised hackles. And while it would be nice to relegate that strain of interrogation to the heat of a strange moment, it’s the kind of question that creates distance between scholars and the large, biblically inclined segment of the American public. The panelists’ calls to take scriptures more seriously, along with the upcoming IUPUI project and renewed conversations between AAR and SBL, could build some needed bridges.


Anonymous said…
This was a great post, and I have thought about it off and on since reading it yesterday. My first thought was one of "Obviously people who study Christianity--especially Protestant evangelicalism--should have read the Bible." As I thought about it, however, my position began to change. I'm not sure that a complete reading of the Bible is a necessity for studying Christianity. I don't think it is necessarily arrogance that keeps scholars from reading the Bible cover-to-cover. I think it is more indicative of the role the Bible plays in Christianity. I have read the Bible cover-to-cover in many different settings in my life, and as a contemporary religious studies scholar, I don't know that having an understanding of the Bible's contents or the introductory issues about the documents (authorship, date, provenance) necessarily tells me anything about contemporary evangelicalism--and I am interested in religious thought. Now if someone were studying the Bible in America or were examining scripture-heavy sermons, I think a knowledge of the Bible's contents or at least the ability to find and check references would be a good skill. Most scholars, however, are less interested in the Bible as they are in uses of the Bible or how historical subjects have used the Bible. I don't know that even here a complete reading of the Bible is a necessity. In addition, the "cover-to-cover" mentality suggests that there is a unified narrative that runs throughout the text that scholars should be aware of. Such a position, however, ignores the historical contexts of the documents themselves and the issues of power that brought them together as the Bible while excluding other documents (this is not even to get into the question of whose Bible; in this context the Christian Bible is meant, but Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant?) I also think that it might be as appropriate to suggest (if we accept the cover-to-cover position) that anyone who studies Christianity must also be familiar with other seminal texts like Augustine's City of God or John Calvin's Institutes of Religion (please, no!). These texts may be as important if not more important for understanding Christianity's development and history. Finally, not all of us who are scholars of Christianity focus on religious thought or texts but look at Christianity through its practices. In this situation, would an analogous question be as appropriate? Should we critique scholars because they have not actually participated in the Eucharist or baptism or mysticism? (This seems to be an analogous issue, but correct me if I am stretching) I don't know that one has to fully participate in order to critique or examine (and I think this includes a complete reading of the Bible as well). Is it necessary for a scholar of Christianity to have completely read the Bible? Ultimately I think the answer is a qualified no. Besides, if Stephen Prothero is right, Christians aren't reading their Bibles, why should we?
Jeremy said…
Great post, Elesha, and I second Todd's comments. I certainly agree that this was one of the liveliest moments of the weekend in Indy. As a scholar of new and alternative Christianities in America who did not grow up as a Christian, I certainly had my hackles raised by the "cover to cover" issue. I've never sat down and read the Bible as one might read a novel (which is what "cover to cover" implies to me). But through college and graduate school I took six classes on various aspect of the Bible, and I can't even begin to count the time I have spent tracking down biblical references, reading the proof texts my subjects cite, and otherwise figuring out how those people and groups I study use and understand the Bible. Were I to study a group that required cover to cover reading to understand the text, I would do it. Still, I insist that I have decent grasp of the Bible even if I have never read it in the manner that a certain stripe of Protestant Christian insists upon. The Bible is one part, albeit a very important part, of the work of describing, analyzing, and explaining religion in America. Especially when many Americans are Bible owners, not Bible readers, I suspect that we risk over-privileging both the Bible itself as well as a certain type of Protestant expression if we insist on the "cover to cover" mentality.
Anonymous said…
This is a great article. I would hope that anyone who follows the history of Christianity in America would be familiar with the Scriptures and the translations used in America. Each translation speaks to various segments of our culture across the ages.
The reluctance to read the scriptures raises interesting issues. It speaks of the heart of the scholar.
Anonymous said…
This is a tough issue and I think Todd has made some very important and observations. One could make a general statement that scholars of religion should read and study the actual texts of the traditions that they are studying, even if they are not themselves specializing in the study of Scripture (such as Hebrew Bible or New Testament scholars). Even so, as Todd rightly notes, the way religious persons and groups engage Scripture is quite complicated. We may say as a general rule that certain segments of fundamentalists and evangelicals are more likely to read Scripture (or hear it read at church or bible study) than liberal Protestants or Catholics. Yes, these are vast generalizations, but the point is that even those who read Scriptures often privilege or use particular texts more readily than others, even if they operate under the assumption that there is a unified theme or narrative in the Bible. When I teach a class on biblical interpretation and slavery (as part of my Christianity and slavery class), at no other time am I as challenged by this question about detailed knowledge of Scripture as when we set up pro-slavery and antislavery readings of Scripture: examining particular texts, different presuppositions, frequently used books or segments of the Bible, etc. I suppose the point in my rambling comment is that as much as we might want to say it is desirable (of course it is!) that scholars read the Bible or the Quran (or any other sacred text of the religion they are studying), it is not clear to me that it necessarily gives them a privileged or unique insight. Reading the Bible all the way through is not the same as carefully attending to how people cite it, use it, appropriate it, and struggle with its meaning (which is often in a contested field of present and received interpretation) at a contemporary moment. Scholars obviously need to "hear" this and attend to this in their study of religious persons.

Well, that's all I have to say about this for now. I do think Todd make many observations and comments that are more eloquent than what I've stated. Thanks, Elesha, for your reportage. Glad it sparked such comments.

Curtis J. Evans
Thank you Elesha for the post and everyone else for your insights. What fascinated me most by the exchanges at the conference were the people who insisted that it was wrong to take such a poll. The argument here, as I remember it, was not that reading the Scriptures of the religion you study was not important, but that to ask such a question was to create a divide between the personal faith traditions of the scholars in the room. As I recall, one prominent scholar (who I won't name here because I am only paraphrasing), said, "Well, I'm a liberal protestant, and we don't read the Bible like that." Another said, somewhat self-reflexively "For Catholics, the Bible is not 'it,' because we read the Bible through the mediation of tradition."

What fascinated me most was the way this question went dangerously close to the question-never-asked at these academic conferences: how do your personal experiences with faith and faith formation education inform how you study--and what you study--about the religions you study? My impression was that Professor Flake's question was intentionally trying to get up to that line without crossing over it. My impression (and once again, I am guessing) was that she was trying to challenge all of us to know what our religious subjects are talking about and experiencing in the ways that many of them would have experienced that religion. I really admired--and really saw the value in--this provocation. What fascinated me most about the response was the way so many scholars in the room didn't even want to entertain this question out loud.

As a person trained in social history, I come from a world where talking about identity politics at conferences is much more welcome. I study Christian Socialism, and pretty much every time I've presented on my work I've gotten questions about how I became a Christian/ Christian Socialist. (It is assumed that I identify somewhat with this group by the fact that I have dedicated myself to this project.) I get the sense that in the field of labor/social history, we assume each other's academic projects are an extension of our personal politics and that the scholar is happy to discuss how the two relate, because that intersection is in fact the scholar's "real" life project. (And, in the ethnographic sense, this discussion unveils some of our personal biases on the table and allows them to be part of the discussion.) It fascinates me how the field of Religious Studies deals with personal politics so differently. I suppose this is because so much of the discipline is rooted in sociology and the social sciences more generally?

Where I ultimately land is that everyone should read major sections of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, as well as the Qu'ran and the Book of Mormon. I say this not just because Scriptures are often very important to the subjects we study, but because Scriptures are often very important to modern day practitioners of the faiths we study, and it's important to ground our studies of the past in a respect for (even if simultaneous critique of) the people who continue to practice versions of that faith.
Tom Van Dyke said…
I also think that it might be as appropriate to suggest (if we accept the cover-to-cover position) that anyone who studies Christianity must also be familiar with other seminal texts like Augustine's City of God or John Calvin's Institutes of Religion (please, no!). These texts may be as important if not more important for understanding Christianity's development and history.

Ace, Todd. I would also add a familiarity with Scholasticism, which was not completely expunged by the Reformation and still underlaid via "natural law" Blackstone, Hamilton, James Wilson, and others. [Although one could cut to the chase with Grotius, etc., but the touchstone is probably Richard Hooker, so often cited by Locke.]

Also, agree that how the Bible was received normatively is the historian's concern, not the deep woods of theory and theology. But sometimes, the historian or the advocate-historian's ignorance of the Bible past the Sermon on the Mount is cringe-inducing, as though Christians believe[d] that Mighty Jehovah somehow mutated into Barney the Dinosaur at the Incarnation.

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