Guest post: “It is perhaps a common experience for any PhD candidate…” (HUMANITIES TODAY). A perspective from Biblical Studies

It is perhaps a common experience for any PhD candidate. You meet someone—perhaps a fellow traveler on a flight, perhaps another academic at a university function—who asks you what you do. You respond enthusiastically with a pithy summary of your research…only to realize that your enthusiasm has met with glazed eyes and a conciliatory smile.

Such is especially the case for many academics in the field of biblical studies. Biblical studies is commonly regarded suspiciously—as something of a black sheep—by both scholarly communities and faith-based communities. Academics unfamiliar with biblical studies sometimes suspect it to be little more than a glorified Bible study. Faith-based communities, conversely, suspect biblical studies to be the graveyard of faith. More than once have I met with a reproving look or word of caution when I explained to a churchgoer that I was pursuing research in the field of biblical studies.

This seemingly liminal place that biblical studies inhabits between scholarly and faith-based circles informs a basic (if reductionist) division within biblical studies: the dichotomy between historical-critical and literary-critical studies. Historical-critical studies assuage the suspicions of academics while raising the ire of churchgoers; literary-critical studies can be understood to pacify the suspicions of faith-based communities while kindling the doubts of other academics (i).

Although the discipline of biblical studies might seem isolated and irrelevant to the experience of other disciplines, I’d like to entertain a loose parallel between it and the humanities. From one perspective—that of faith-based communities—biblical studies is often cast as unpractical. It’s too concerned with arcane historical matters that are more likely to destroy faith than support it. From the opposite perspective—that of scholarly communities—it is regularly seen as unsystematic, undirected. It’s only concerned with interpreting texts that have seemingly less and less relevance in today’s world. In addition to these suspicious external perspectives, and in part as a result of them, the field of biblical studies faces an internal tension between the two opposing tendencies of historical and literary criticism. The larger field of humanities, it seems to me, finds itself in a comparable situation, positioned between doubters—namely, a practical, capitalist oriented society and the academic world of the harder sciences—and facing the respective charges of lack of practicality and rigor. In addition to external pressures, the field of humanities faces tension within itself as a number of its subdisciplines stand in thinly veiled opposition to one another.

It is here, I hope, that the parallel proves instructive. Biblical studies, as its name suggests, is characterized not by methodology but rather by subject matter: namely, the Bible. If the proliferation of methodologies within its fold has taught biblical studies anything, it’s that methodologies are biased constructs employed by biased critics. That is, methodologies entail certain aims and assumptions (while neglecting others), just as the critics wielding them work under certain aims and assumptions (while neglecting others). I have little schooling in the history of the humanities, so this may be a hopelessly naïve leap for me to make—but I wonder whether the humanities does not find itself in a similar scenario? In the face of its accusers, who demand for an account of the field’s practicality and rigor, the humanities find itself in a bit of a bind— because really, it has no underlying methodology. It is unified not around methodology but around a common subject matter—the human experience, in all its aspects. Methodologies multiply and abound within the field because, quite naturally, humanists have many different aims and assumptions. Such a view of the humanities, of course, is blurring. How do the sciences, which are distinguished by methodology, relate to the humanities? Is the distinction as rigid as some would posit? How might the sociocultural situatedness of all methodologies inform the privileging of some over others? How might the aims and assumptions of society at large inform this privileging? Is this privileging valid? Does the humanities as a comprehensive field need to account for its relevance, or rather do the methodologies that abound within and around it need to account for their relevance to the humanities? Such questions (transposed accordingly) have proved liberating in the field of biblical studies, and I wonder whether they might not serve similarly for the field of the humanities, even in its much more politically charged context.

(i) A brief outline of this dichotomy and the various methodological inclinations underlying it will suffice to illustrate these relations. Largely attributable to the modern scientific impulse, historical-critical studies emerged as readers sought to subject the biblical texts to rationalist, empirical, systematic inquiry—a subjection that was seen to validate the academic grounds of biblical studies. The historicity of the text as well as of the events and persons that it represented became the main object of biblical studies. What scholars discovered unsurprisingly met with a less than hospitable reception from faith communities, who generally linked biblical truth with the factual historicity of the events and persons of the Bible. In fact, the historical-critical endeavor caused a furor arguably greater than Darwin himself: Essays and Reviews, an 1860 publication by seven Oxford biblical scholars which reported the latest findings of biblical scholarship to the church, sold within two years more copies than Darwin’s On the Origin of Species did within twenty years. The suspicion with which church communities look upon biblical studies even today is due in large part to the field’s historical-critical proclivity, which threatens to undermine the factuality on which many of the church’s faith claims are made.

In the last half-decade or so, however, the historical-critical approach of biblical studies has had to contend with a counterpart. Deriving from New Criticism, structuralism, and post-structuralism (or deconstruction), the literary-critical approach to the Bible bracketed historical questions, or at least made them subject to the priority of literary ones. The focus shifted from historicity to the text itself and later to the reader. Literary-critical approaches favored centripetal rather than centrifugal readings: that is, instead of trying to find meaning outside the text in some underlying or precipitating historical event or personage, it treated the text as coherent and autonomous. More recently these approaches have taken a cue from the fields of reception history and reader response criticism; and, in their more extreme forms, they concede that every reading of a biblical text is a misreading insofar as it is colored with its own assumptions and aims. Unsurprisingly, then, many contemporary readings begin with an admission of certain priorities—feminist, womanist, postcolonial, queer, etc.—and pronounce their interest in overturning the dominance of androcentric, Eurocentric, and heteronormative interpretations. While the literary-critical approach does not set out to placate the faith communities’ suspicions regarding biblical studies, it nonetheless has had this effect insofar as it has focused on what the text means (or can mean) rather than on its unseemly inconsistency with history. On the other hand, the suspicion with which other scholarly communities look upon biblical studies today might continue, at least in part, because of the loose, pluriform interpretive drive that characterizes its literary-critical approaches. That is, what is biblical studies other than a bunch of people reading the Bible and giving their arbitrary interpretations of it?

This post is part of the weekly series: HUMANITIES TODAY- a series of provocative and interesting posts from people within the academia or the educational sector


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