Bryan Bibb

The Bible in Church and Academy

Humanity as the Manifestation of Deity

As I mentioned in my last post, Jim West was kind enough to invite me to review Stephen L. Herring’s book, Divine Substitution: Humanity as the Manifestation of Deity in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. I was very impressed with the scope of Herring’s coverage and with his careful exegetical arguments. Ultimately, however, I could not agree with his conclusion that Genesis 1, Exodus 32, and Ezekiel 36–37 present humans as the image of God, the extension of God’s presence on earth.

For some reason the PDF munged my link to Daniel McClellan’s review, which I also commend to you.

I highly recommend Herring’s book for all Hebrew Bible scholars, and I’d love to hear what you think about the book or my review. PDF Link.

The Gods We Have Made

I am reviewing a book for Jim West called Divine Substitution: Humanity as the Manifestation of Deity in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, by Stephen L. Herring. Daniel McClellan has already written a great review of it, and mine should be ready presently.

I enjoyed Herring’s discussion of the shrine of Micah in Judges 17–18, in which it is clear that Micah lives in tension between the human origin of his pagan images and their supposed divine status (pp. 76–77). The passage mocks Micah for believing that human-made objects could actually be gods. He is presented as a kind of fool who admits that he has constructed the objects that he calls God, saying “you have taken the gods that I made!”

Micah’s anger reminds me of the outrage that certain Christians express when scholars ask difficult questions about the Bible. When scholars point out facts that challenge the view of the Bible as an other-worldly divine production, they are accused of “undermining” the Bible or “destroying” the Bible’s authority.

When I hear these accusations, I hear “you have taken the god that I made!”, the cry of someone who has had their idol taken away. Pointing out the human origins of the Bible does not diminish its divinity, because the Bible is not a god. In the context of Herring’s discussion, the Bible may be mimetic, such that it points in some way to God, but it does not itself embody God’s presence. It is not a divine object.

I’m speaking of certain extreme positions here. Consider for example this article called “10 Reasons Why I Am Thankful for the God-Breathed Bible,” which attributes God’s acts of salvation to the Bible itself! A summary of Rev. Piper’s view of the Bible:

1. The Bible awakens faith, the source of all obedience.
2. The Bible frees from sin.
3. The Bible frees from Satan.
4. The Bible sanctifies.
5. The Bible frees from corruption and empowers godliness.
6. The Bible serves love.
7. The Bible saves.
8. The Bible gives joy.
9. The Bible reveals the Lord.

I sincerely hope that most Christians would put God as the subject of those sentences! May we as a church be less like Micah, clinging to our idols, and more like the people in Hosea who promise, “we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands.”

Shalomfest: Who Is God?

This past weekend, I was pleased to have been invited to speak at “Shalomfest,” a celebration held annually at the Temple of Israel here in Greenville, SC. You can read about the event here.

As a Christian and a Hebrew Bible scholar, it was a real honor to be entrusted with this time and space to speak about something I hold dear. I hoped to speak about ways in which Christian and Jewish readings of the Hebrew Bible can work together, and even how Jewish interpretation can help Christians think more carefully about biblical theology.

My main point is that Christian theology can become rather abstract and static, and the emphasis on narrative theology in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish tradition is a helpful reminder that “if you want to say something true, tell a story.”

The title is “Who Is God? Metaphor and ‘Myth’ in the Hebrew Bible,” and in the presentation I argue that:

  1. All theology is metaphor.
  2. All theology is narrative.
  3. All theology is mythopoetic.

I recorded it on my (Lifeproof-encased) iPhone, so the sound quality isn’t great. However, if you’d like to listen to the 30-minute talk, the it is available here.

This player may also work:

Academic Controversies and Interpersonal Ethics

Recently, we had a mini-scandal at my university that involved a student group, a speaker whom they wanted to bring for academic credit, some of my colleagues, and me. In my opinion the whole affair was a non-story, but it gained a level of national notoriety due to the political savvy of one activist student. The situation has led me to think more deeply about what it means to be part of a local campus community, and a good member of the academic community more generally.

This is not a post about recent events, but I will use them for illustration.

People matter

One thing that regularly happens in academic discourse is that we can get carried away with our political or ideological goals and forget that we are dealing with real, living people. We must remember that our “opponents” in a controversy are not living symbols for an idea. They are not devious obstacles placed in our way by fate or a demigod. They are not a means to an end, convenient platforms to be used on our way up the ladder. They are human beings with the troubles, doubts, frustrations, challenges, and insecurities that we all share. They love, and they are loved. They are on a journey, as are we, and we should see each human interaction as a stage in the journey, briefly shared.

My hope is that whether I am interacting with students, faculty colleagues, conference speakers, or random internet strangers, I will always see them, and seek to be seen by them.

In this case, I had conducted a private Facebook conversation with a few colleagues about whether I should participate in the proposed event. There were many responses, both in favor of my participation and cautioning me against it. The post was an honest effort on my part to make a wise and well-informed decision. The reason that some colleagues advised me not to participate was because the organization that this speaker represents has a history of holding circus-type events that polarize more than they help people understand the truth. There were some strong opinions expressed about the nature of the event.

A student saw this private Facebook conversation and then published misleading selections with the story that faculty had “taken to social media” to “mock” students. In fact, this was a private conversation about the specific academic issue. No criticism was leveled specifically at the campus group or at any students. I appealed to the group as a professor and as a Christian not to violate my trust and privacy, but they persisted.

I can understand that the students would be dismayed to learn that faculty were antagonistic toward or dismissive of the speaker that they wanted to bring to campus. I get that. The problem was that they turned us into symbols and platforms in order to score rhetorical points.

I believe that we can all do better.

Disagreement not Difference

What happens when we turn other people into symbols is that our disagreement becomes difference, which is difficult to overcome. This kind of rhetorical shorthand is one thing on a larger political level, but it is incredibly damaging in a local community. Those of us in academia have seen it many times: we have professional disagreements about academic topics, but of course none of us is purely “academic,” so our method and politics becomes personal. We start to associate “us” with one “side” and “them” with the other “side.” The next thing that happens is that personal interactions become political acts, everything from departmental gatherings to hallway greetings.

I never want students to see me as a symbol of “the other” or “the enemy” in any way. Will I challenge and push them? Will I point out when they are misguided or incorrect? Yes, and yes. And I hope that they will challenge and push me, and argue back. That’s why we’re here.

If a student disagrees with my approach to the Bible, I must never see them as “the other,” and pack all of my larger objections, frustrations, and anxieties into our relationship. Do this student and I form two “different sides?” No, we are two people in a room together discussing something that we both love.

If professors are to model academic virtue to our students, we must be honest enough to disagree with each other, confident enough not to make it personal, and compassionate enough to honor the complex humanity of our “opponents.”

It makes me sad that a certain segment of the public equates “university professor” with “liberal ideologue.” This is certainly the first time that I have been accused of being such a thing. Most of the opposition that I have faced in my career has been for being too traditional. I am enough of an out-lier in academia that I am sympathetic to students who feel marginalized from the academic discourse. We need to do a better job all around of seeing each other as complex people making arguments, and to learn how to disagree openly without making it personal.

Truth matters

Another lesson that this event has taught me is to mistrust anything that I read on the internet. The newspaper article about my issue was fairly accurate, and the initial online op-ed that the activist student wrote was misguided (in my view) but factually correct. From there it got ugly fast. At least two other national websites picked up the story and twisted the facts so badly that if you removed the identifying details you might not even have recognized it as the same story.

This may come as a shock to you, but—-turns out!—-not everyone is motivated by a desire to speak the truth. Seriously, trust me. Some people are very happy to say things that they know are half-truths and lies in order to get a few more ad clicks or donor checks.

This is a simple fact: if your understanding of an event is shaped only by a partisan website, then you do not know what happened. We saw this with the letters and calls from alumni that we received. These are college graduates, our graduates, who learned critical thinking from us, and who totally accepted the version of events they had heard on talk radio or read in a partisan source.

The decisive thing is that they didn’t write me or the Dean asking for clarification or explanation. They wrote in anger based on incorrect information, on mistakes and lies that they had accepted as truth.

In an academic community, it is essential that we reserve judgment until we know all the facts of a case, and that we do not respond emotionally based on misleading or incomplete information. Why? Well, it could be embarrassing for us, but the real reasons are the first two points in this article: the people we are judging are real people, our colleagues and our students and our professors and our family. They deserve better than that from us, as we do from them.

The Bible and Financial Increase

I have been collecting research about contemporary controversies related to the Bible, and specifically to Bible translation. Last night I came across a fascinating book, The Complete Personalized Promise Bible on Financial Increase: Every Scripture Promise of Provision, from Genesis to Revelation, Personalized and Written as a Prayer Just For You. The author has written a larger “Complete Personalized Promise Bible,” and has broken the material to create other books related to women, men, and health/healing.

Like so many issues related to the Bible and faith these days, this topic is totally polarized. I do not believe that the Bible promises “financial increase” in the way that this author suggests, and I do not believe that “God loves it when his kids have a lot of money” (from his Preface, p. x). Those who are invested (literally) in the prosperity gospel will hear no objection, however. Consider the Amazon reviews of the book linked above, with a 4.3 star rating. The only negative comment in the reviews (pointing out that Jesus says, “blessed are the poor”) was rated “helpful” by 1 out of 10 readers.

I honestly do not know how to help people move beyond this kind of reasoning. My sense is that this theology is attractive to those in financial distress, and I am sympathetic to the desire to find some kind of grip in the face of bankruptcy or poverty. I believe and faith in God can provide that foundation and hope for people in trouble, but not in the way that this book claims.

Though I can’t fix the problem, I would like to understand it better. There are three immediate issues here.

Verses vs. Texts

As I wrote in a recent article and covered in my post about digital Bibles, people these days love to read the Bible one verse at a time, particularly for therapeutic reasons. This “personalized” Bible represents the complete destruction of the canon, and I would argue, the complete destruction of the Bible as it really exists. The Bible has been replaced by a list of aphorisms, sorted and interpreted for readers who need something.

Here is an example of his approach:

Consider the phrase “I can sow cash seeds and reap a harvest.” Cash seeds? Who is to receive the “cash seeds?” This verse (Genesis 8:22) is part of God’s promise never to destroy the earth again by flood. So there is a message here about God’s faithfulness and provision, but it has nothing to do with “cash seeds.”

Individuals verses communities

The promises in the Bible given as part of the covenant tradition are primarily addressed to the people of God, to the Israelites and to the world in general, not to individuals. There are individuals in the Bible who receive particular callings and promises, but they tend to be prophetic figures whom God calls to a life of hardship and sacrifice.

This way of reading the Bible destroys the context of the Bible so thoroughly that God’s vision for the redemption of the world is completely eradicated. Nothing that Jesus says about poverty and wealth can be understood apart from his conception of the Kingdom of God, which was primarily a vision of the earth transformed under God’s rule.

Faith vs doubt

A third problem is rhetorical. He begins with instructions on how to use this book. Readers must read all of it, believe its contents, and remove all doubt. If a person does not experience the “harvest” of the “seeds” that have been planted, it means that they have allowed doubt (from Satan) to stand in the way of “the floodgates of abundance” (p. xvi)

This is the same problem with faith-healing or snake handling. If you believe hard enough or well enough, God will bless, heal, and protect you. If you find yourself in suffering, illness, and injury then clearly you did not trust God hard enough or well enough. What is supposedly as a liberating message of God’s favor creates, in the end, frustration, guilt, and rejection of God’s true grace.

The Canon in a Digital Age

I’m working on a paper about “The Canon in a Digital Age,” and have been thinking about whether the availability of digital biblical texts (websites, tablet and e-readers, etc) will a) increase the possibilities of biblical literacy, b) further degrade biblical literacy, or c) pretty much keep things the same.

In teaching my class on the “Digital Bible,” I argue that these electronic tools make the Bible accessible in a way that is impossible in the world of the codex (a fancy name for a “book”). Readers can place different translations side by side to compare their differences, pull together texts and commentary to gain a better contextual understanding, and search for particular phrases and words to help them bring different parts of the Bible into conversation.

Even though my idealism as a humanities professor makes me want to choose a), I feel that the odds may favor either b) or c). Consider, for example, the website called “TopVerses,” a ranking of biblical verses by their popularity on the internet. Here is their self-description:

We counted how many times each Bible verse (all 31,105 of them) is referenced anywhere on the internet and ranked them accordingly. You can use TopVerses to quickly find any Bible verse in order of popularity. Searching includes NIV, KJV and AMP translations. Join us on social media and help reach the next generation one verse at a time.

I have two reactions for now. First, it is interesting to know which verses are quoted the most on the internet, but it does not indicate which biblical texts are the most important or meaningful. I will have more on this later.

Second, the bigger problem is the division of the Bible into individual verses. Verses were introduced in the 16th century in order to make it easier to compare different textual versions. I can see their value as a scholarly tool, but they have long caused English Bible readers to believe that an individual verse could be quoted all on its own. The biblical writers knew nothing of these “verses,” and I believe would be rather shocked to see how they have been used.

The last sentence of their description is especially problematic. Somehow quoting verses to people is supposed to “reach the next generation” for Christ? No, that is not how it works. The missional calling of Christians is to live out the faith in a broken world, to share the good news of the gospel in actions and words. I believe that the Bible is an important part of that process, but we should spend more time helping people understand the scriptures in their fullness, and less time using “verses” as rhetorical ammunition.

The Role of E-Bibles

I have seen two thoughtful follow-up posts to my earlier invitation for readers to take my Digital Bible final exam. First, Daniel McClellan raised a very good question about the dangers of relying on Accordance or other electronic biblical platforms for one’s understanding of the original language texts (Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament).

He says:

I try to be pragmatic about these kinds of things, and I can see how developing facility with these programs may be a more efficient use of a future pastor’s educational time, but at the same time I lament the fact that so many may be giving up the opportunity to learn the languages well enough to know how and when Bible software is inadequate for a thorough understanding of the sense of a given construction or passage.

I also lament the erosion of solid language facility among pastors and preachers. When I learned Hebrew in the 90s at Princeton Seminary, there was a pervasive distrust of electronic tools as a “crutch” for learning bibical languages. We were explicity told not to use them because they would interfere with our learning of the grammar, syntax, and morphology of Greek and Hebrew.

In principle, I still agree with that perspective. I know, however, that language programs have begun to use electronic biblical platforms for instruction, and encourage students to use them as they move out into ministry. This new attitude is partly a nod to the practical realities of the pastorate these days. Who has time to do old-school analog exegesis this days? I would see this as a problem to be overcome rather than an inevitable reality to be planned around. Good knowledge of the biblical languages is an essential requirement for an expert knowledge of the Bible.

At the same time, systems such as Accordance, Logos, and Bibleworks can be used to help students actually learn, and use, the language. There are many modules with grammatical and syntactical instruction, as well as advanced lexicons that go beyond the simple (and chronically abused) “BDB definition.” I would hope that we can make good use of these tools while learning the language, not instead of learning the language. [I would compare this situation to our use of “ponies,” or previous treatments of texts, in my Akkadian classes. You could copy the “answers” from the previous translation if you wanted, but you wouldn’t actually learn the language that way.]

The second comment came from James McGrath, who asked whether students should be limited to the search function within the Bible application or be allowed to use Google and other internet sources. He says,

Is the best way to get students to learn to consult reliable and academically-appropriate sources to give them specific ones to use, or let them run wild on the internet with some basic guidelines and instructions, some combination of the two, or an incremental process that moves gradually from the one to the other?

I agree with the “incremental” option. In my class, students were required to use the Internet for homework assignments, but in the exam I wanted to test their ability to identify specific passages without relying on a (dubious) list somewhere on the internet. I refer you to my comment on James’s post to contine the discussion there.

Thank you to Daniel and James, and to others who have been involved in this fruitful conversation.

Digital Bible Literacy

My Religion 216 “Digital Bible” students are currently taking their final exam, and rather than grade papers while I wait, I decided to post their exam to see how well you all would do.

The class used the Accordance system (which they could purchase at a 50% discount; I assigned them the “Bible Study” collection), though a couple of students chose to use online free tools instead. We spent the first half of the term talking about the process of exegesis, using Michael Gorman’s excellent primer on the subject, and the second half was devoted to particular topics, most of which are represented in the final exam.

The class is designed to teach students how to interpret the Bible using digital tools, and a big part of that is leveraging the digital search interface to find important and interesting texts. Once you have your texts in view, then you can use the various parts of the exegetical method, drawing upon textual and commentary resources within Accordance and elsewhere. They each wrote a 12-page exegetical research paper, for which they had to use several academic commentaries and peer-reviewed articles discovered through ATLA or JSTOR.

The final exam isn’t very difficult, in my opinion. I decided to ask fairly broad questions rather than have them do a treasure hunt for specific things. Even so, I think it shows how powerful an electronic system like Accordance can be. Someone with a strong biblical literacy could probably answer most or all of these questions without searching, but that group of readers is small and shrinking. With the right tools, anyone can find out what is in the Bible, which is a prerequisite for understanding what it says.

Let me know how you did! You can find me in the comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

The Academic Mafia

A friend on Facebook shared this article from Slate, titled “Welcome to Our Tijuana Campus: How academia sometimes behaves like a drug cartel.” The argument is that academia functions economically like a drug mafia, in which those in power enrich themselves through the unrewarded labor of minions who hope one day to be “the man.”

This is undoubtedly true in the sense that the academy has created a vast churning cauldron of graduate students who will, it seems, do anything to gain recognition, acceptance, and employment. Could the research university system function in its present form without an army of poorly-paid GSIs—who recently went on strike in Cali—not to mention the reliance upon adjuncts and itinerant contingent faculty even among liberal arts universities?

In addition to the economic arguments, I am also struck by the way in which academia is similar to the mafia in its emphasis on reputation and personal connections over substance or merit. When faculty members are judged according to how well they are known, we have left the realm of knowledge and entered the world of the schoolyard or the gang. It doesn’t matter how good my work is, only what kind of respect and popularity I have. And how do I get that respect? Intially by association with my teachers (godfathers), and then by assocation with my colleagues and collaborators (good fellas). Certainly there is “merit” evaluation along the way, but the parameters and standards of that evaluation are under strict cartel control.

The whole thing, of course, is run with the cool administrative efficency of Gus Fring. From the outside, it doesn’t look nearly as vicious as it is. I am often struck by the envy and grasping for recognition among younger academics. To those, I quote a great man: “Just because you shot Jessie James, don’t make you Jessie James.”

On Scripture: Advent 1

Before Thanksgiving, I posted a first draft of an Advent 1 reflection for On Scripture, along with some thoughts about how difficult it is to write for general audiences. My second draft appeared this past week on the Huffington Post, and I commend it to you: Can This World Be Saved?.

Can this world be saved? The prophet encourages us to answer, “Yes.” If we “lay aside the works of darkness,” we will see that violence is a problem to be solved and not part of God’s plan to destroy the world. We will use our resources to shape a sustainable and flourishing community rather than instruments of war.