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In My Hebrew Scriptures Course

December 10, 2009

I’m doing the same project I did last semester in my New Testament course. The students are really getting into it again. I’m astonished at how excited they are about it—even the students who hate group projects seem to be getting into it.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m letting them say out loud some of the things they’ve probably been thinking all along.

We haven’t had the debate yet, but it looks like Avalos is ahead in the polls.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2009 4:30 pm

    As is usual I’m going to push against you a bit, but really simply because this sounds like an interesting and relevant project, and I’m curious what you’d think. In the original post about your New Testament project, Eric asked about adding an Evangelical perspective and you responded with criteria that would make such an approach not permissible.

    I wonder, though- might such a position be an interesting alternative to the Boer position in this debating project? If you’re just talking about the cultural uses of the Bible rather than theological truth claims which might not be verifiable, you could probably mix it up a bit more than:

    1) Prothero– neutral but cultured citizenship
    2) Boer– leftist agenda
    3) Avalos– (for lack of a better adjective) anticlerical agenda

    Presumably you could also propose reading the Bible to further a right-wing Evangelical agenda, or a neo-liberal agenda, or a quietist agenda, or a pacifist agenda. I take it that the Prothero and Avalos positions are prominent on the ground today and that’s why they’re included, and the Boer position is perhaps similar to your own, so that’s why it is included. But it could be neat to expand the horizons a bit, too. In any case, the right-wing Evangelical agenda is probably just as prominent in society as any of the ones you list (certainly more prominent than the Boer or Avalos position, although perhaps less prominent than Prothero), so it could be a useful way for your students to learn more about an influential view by getting at it from the inside.

    Would you say that your verifiability standard is really pertinent for this debate? I guess I don’t see how any of your three stances are strictly “verifiable”… the point of the exercise seems to be defending various political uses of the Bible, and I would think that conservative uses could fit into such a project as well as any others.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 10, 2009 10:49 pm

    Hi Evan; as usual, thank you for commenting! I’m not sure I agree with you, but let me elaborate on the claim you’re contesting.

    Prothero makes (what I take to be negligible) assumptions—he assumes that people can’t make wise foreign policy and domestic policy decisions without knowing about religion, and that wise decisions are desirable. (He also assumes that we can teach stuff neutrally, but I take him to task for that.)

    Boer assumes that leftist agendas are desirable. However, for the purposes of the debate I ask students to defend the positions that the Bible is authoritative and can (and should) be used for purposes of liberation rather than oppression. That sort of flattens the more controversial set of assumptions. The assumption that oppression is bad I take to be a negligible (as long as we don’t go too deeply into what counts as oppression). From there it’s more or less a conversation about whether or not the Bible can be useful for liberatory purposes.

    Avalos offers a lot of evidence for the fact that people don’t read the bible any more, people don’t apply much of the stuff they do read, and that the worldview of the authors of the Bible is far from our own. He demonstrates that the Bible contains sexist, racist, and genocidal material. He also argues that continuing to teach the Bible as a text of interest reproduces its authority, and that there’s inadequate justification for doing so. On the basis of this he suggests that scholars shouldn’t reproduce its authority by continuing to privilege it above other ANE texts. These claims seem to be arguable without dipping into really controversial assumptions (although the conclusion itself is obviously controversial).

    I imagine that an evangelical view would depend on supernaturalist assumptions, which none of these authors do. Would you disagree?

  3. December 11, 2009 1:39 am

    I imagine that an evangelical view would depend on supernaturalist assumptions, which none of these authors do. Would you disagree?

    Well, if you understand the proposed “evangelical” debate squad to be arguing for the divinity of Christ or God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt as an historical event, then yeah, sure, it depends upon supernaturalist assumption and doesn’t sound like it would be permissible for this.

    But apart from evangelical theological claims, it seems that there are conservative or evangelical political and ethical claims that can be drawn from scripture in the same way that Boer identifies a liberatory authority in the Bible. One might defend the place of religious piety in the public sphere, or a position of deference to government authority. Leftist politics also does not have a monopoly on claims to liberation from oppression… a conservative evangelical case could be made for everything from defense of the unborn against abortion to the strengthening of marriage laws against no-fault divorce as liberatory and usefully buttressed by appeals to the biblical text, all without requiring any more supernaturalist assumptions than a leftist use of the Bible.

    That’s all I’m saying. And that’s why I mentioned other ideological commitments as possibilities for inclusion- to try to make it clear that when I mention evangelicalism I don’t think that it needs to be interpreted as a purely theological phenomenon. We should presumably recognize the political commitments operating in all such traditions. That’s not to say that any of them or all of them are “correct”, but only that I thought the suggestion of another reading of the Bible might be useful, and might expand students’ understanding of what political uses of Scripture might entail rather than simply dismissing certain groups as “the supernaturalist ones whose motivating factor is bracketed out ahead of time by the terms of our critical work”. The Boer group, after all, would take the Bible as authoritative, which surely involves the acceptance of some non-verifiable (if not actually supernaturalist) assumptions. It doesn’t seem that a conservative alternative would obviously be in any different a position.

  4. Eric Thurman permalink
    December 11, 2009 1:30 pm

    My ears must have burning since I was just thinking of this conversation last week. For the end of my Intro. O.T. course I shamelessly stole this idea–with one modification that bears on this post. I dropped Avalos and substituted the first two essays from Stanley Hauerwas’ _Unleashing the Scriptures: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America_.

    I don’t think I handled the logistics of an end-of-term group debate that well, so its hard to gauge how successful it was. That said, the conversation was lively and students seemed to enjoy it (even if they didn’t quite get all the points being made). In any case, why I chose Hauerwas might interest you all, as it somewhat supports what Evan is suggesting. Hauerwas represents an approach to the Bible that is theological, but is neither grounded in supernaturalist assumptions nor is simply apolitical (quite the contrary). If I recall correctly, he is sometimes labeled a communitarian with respect to ethics etc. He advocates that the Bible be read in and for the interests of the Church, here meaning a political community with its own perspectives on power, authority, and related matters; this community is charged with forming/teaching people to read as responsible members who embody the political/ theological ideals of the Church.

    So can this ‘ecclesiastical’ maybe even evangelical voice fit into a dialogue with Prothero and Boer (and Avalos)? Well I tried. Like Boer and Avalos, Hauerwas would argue there is not neutral reading of the Bible. Like Avalos he might even want to see the discipline of biblical studies disappear, or at least be indifferent to such a development. Unlike all three, however, he sees the text advancing the political goals of a smaller, even sectarian community. How that community relates to national and global politics was an important issue for debate, both within the Hauerwas group and in conversation with the other groups. (When the conversation advanced to that level, that is; some Hauerwas readers didn’t quite get him).

    For the record, I dropped Avalos and added Hauerwas not because of any specific views on my part, but simply because I wanted to meet my students were I thought they were on these issues. Shorter: I didn’t prepare them to hear Avalos and their journals confirmed the theological/ecclesiastical interests of most of the class. In the future, I’d like to include Avalos too, though I’ve got to figure out how better to set up the whole dialogue (yes, that’s a bleg for classroom ideas).

  5. December 11, 2009 3:48 pm

    “In any case, why I chose Hauerwas might interest you all, as it somewhat supports what Evan is suggesting.”

    Yeah, I think Hauerwas is a great suggestion… probably a better one than some of those that I listed insofar as he can be situated more decidedly against some of the other options. Another benefit may be that Hauerwas would sound quite provocative depending on what institutional setting you’re at because as you point out, his politics will almost appear “sectarian” in contrast to other approaches (not that communitarianism is any more provocative than leftist or liberal politics… it all depends on one’s context, I think).

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 12, 2009 11:25 am

    In response to both Evan and Eric: Yes, I would definitely consider substituting someone like Hauerwas for Boer. I can see how some of his work wouldn’t necessarily depend on a long list of controversial or supernaturalist assumptions. I’d be disinclined to do so since I hate that guy, but I teach lots of stuff I hate, so I might do it anyway! :)

    One thing you said, Evan, which I would qualify, is Boer on the Bible’s authority. As I read it, Boer doesn’t really assert that the Bible should be authoritative, so much as he says it simply IS and as such can be used as a tool for political purposes. (One of my students asked me, “so, he thinks conservatives use the bible to manipulate people and therefore he wants to use it to manipulate people too?” That’s actually pretty close to what Boer says at times.)

    It’s been so long since I’ve read Hauerwas that I don’t know what he would say, but I bet the Bible has some intrinsic authority for him.

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 12, 2009 11:29 am

    Eric, about setting up for them to receive Avalos: I guess my students are ready for it because I don’t pull any punches when we cover the material. I look at all the nasty bits. When we read laws about women and slaves and killing Canaanites, I point out that the material is INCREDIBLY sexist and racist. It’s simply a matter of fact.

    So when we get to Avalos and he says this stuff is bad stuff, it seems like a no-brainer for many of them.

    However, I don’t get a lot of resistance in part because I don’t have evangelical students. I think there’s like one in the whole school.

    Eric, would you be interested in swapping our debate instructions? Maybe we could both improve the “logistics” by looking at them!

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