I just finished reading Hector Avalos’s fascinating work, The End of Biblical Studies, in hopes that he will debate me. I will isolate what I think are three major issues that run through the theme of the book, and I will deal with them in three separate essays. These three issues are:
(1) The relevance of the Bible to modern life and culture.
(2) Several examples of the sub disciplines and how he thinks they have contributed to the illusion of relevance.
(3) His chapter “Unhistorical Jesus.”
The topic for this week is “relevance.” Dr. Avalos charges that the Bible has no relevance to modern life. Its value system is ancient and based upon a form of cruel feudalism that no longer applies in a post enlightenment world (my term, not his). The major worldview of the Bible is based upon ritual purity laws that really must be classified as pure superstition. The effect of these two aspects is an oppressive set of presuppositions that have stunted the progress of our own culture. In response to this situation Dr. Avalos lays out his major purpose:
(1) Modern Biblical Scholarship has demonstrated that the Bible is the product of cultures whose values and beliefs about the origin, nature and purpose of our world are no longer held to be reliant, even by most Christians and Jews.
(2) Paradoxically, despite the recognition of such irrelevance, the profession still centers in maintaining the illusion of relevance by:
(2a) a variety of scholarly disciplines whose methods and conclusions are often philosophically flawed (translation, textual criticism, archaeology, history and biblical theology); and
(2b) an infrastructure that supports biblical studies (universities and media publishing complex, churches and professional organizations.)
Ah, yes, the scandal and the shock that people who study the Bible tend to be religious, and organizations which support Biblical scholarship seem to do so for religious reasons--what is the world coming to?!
From here he moves into the explanation of what he means by irrelevance. We will see, however, that his major trick in this introduction is to play spin-doctor.
He places a spin upon Biblical interest such that: if you have any interest you are part of the propaganda machine maintaining the illusion of relevance; if you try to defend the relevance of the Bible you are part of this propaganda effort; and if you have no real knowledge or interest in the Bible then you prove the irrelevance of it, no matter how small the minority you represent may be.
Of course no evidence could ever count in favor of it! This is the major trick of Avalos’s style: everything is a trick, it’s all spin.
What does he mean by “relevance”? The major predication for this term is the value system espoused in the Old Testament. The Bible reflects an ancient world culture that we no longer understand. The values of the ancient Hebrews are no longer connected to anything modern people think or feel. (p 17) For the most part Avalos focuses upon practice rather than value. So he’s majoring in the fiddly bits, pointing to the ritual purity laws as examples. (Ibid.) He argues that lectionaries ignore such books as Joshua and Judges since they demonstrate a violent core of genocidal conquest (he quotes Michael Coogan, p 17). Then of course he has to rag on an ancient-world understanding of science and medicine. That’s such a natural for an atheist to pick on. Yes, they lived along time ago, God did not set up a modern medical school in the fertile crescent, what more proof do you need that there’s no God? He picks on the historicity of figures like Moses and David. (For my own opinions about their historicity, and its relevance to Biblical Relevance, see this page). Of course he alleges the lack of any independent evidence for the life or teachings of Jesus. (My own discussions of this can be found here). Thus, he asserts that we can’t really be following the teachings of Jesus (since we don’t know what they are). Wouldn’t you know it, here’s one of my favorite hobbyhorses: “Biblical authors generally believed that women were subordinate to men.” Did they now? Little does he know that he’s dealing with an egalitarian!The major swing in scholarship today Is not toward covering for the patriarchal assumptions of the past, but in uncovering the egalitarian dimensions of the Bible that have previously been missed by the egos of male expositors. Finally he castigates scholars for not being more forceful about the outmoded nature of ideas like creationism.
I can’t say I blame him on that last one, but why that means the Bible is irrelevant is beyond me. It seems more like that demonstrates that the Bible is in need of exposition, and the expositors are irrelevant. Avalos himself could be filling this need, but he chooses to conduct medicine-shows. Rather than offer a coherent understanding of why the Bible is irrelevant to modern life, Avalos has thrown up a smoke screen. At this point we do not know if irrelevance means we can’t use it, it’s scientifically wrong, we don’t believe it, it isn’t true, or what it means.
Clearly he is saying that modern culture no longer holds the values of the ancient world, but of course he’s treating the ancient world like one monolithic repository of obsolescence. It is safe to say that the values of the culture of First Temple (certainly pre-Temple!) Judaism were out of date and no longer shared by Jews in the Second Temple period, except for a core belief in the mighty acts of God in history and the law. No doubt attitudes and understandings were different in these periods. We know this for a fact since the Jews of Jesus’ day had been Hellenized. They had been exposed to internationalism in the form of Babylonian and Persian culture, too, but even that was an outmoded bygone era by the time of the Hellenists. The wisdom literature of the OT is as different form the early tribal pre-temple Mosaic literature as are Hawaiians from Mohawks. Yet the Jews of Jesus day still found the OT relevant.
My beef with Avalos is not so much that he says the values of the Bible are outmoded, or that the attacks the worldview of the Bible as being based upon pre-scientific superstitions and mythologies. I agree with all of that. In fact, I will go one better and point out that the purity laws of the OT are basically taken from foreign cultures and based upon sympathetic magic!
The problem is we do not need to find the relevance of the Bible in laws that, at the very foundation of Christian theology, are seen as obsolete, and are taught to be so even in Christian scripture (e.g. Rom 4, Gal 3). We have a host of fine theologians who have maintained a living tradition; these people have spoken the OT into relevance in modernity many times. Avalos acts as though Reinhold Niebuhr never existed.
But this maintenance requires deep thinking. Avalos is willing to sleep, to slough off, to give up, and to actually promote others’ laziness in thinking about these things. Any attempt to demonstrate relevance prompts his hermeneutic of suspicion: the relevance seekers are part of the propaganda machine. He tries to create a catch-22 in which the believer is always in a double bind.
From the irrelevance of Biblical thought he moves to the general ignorance of the population. (pp 17-18) He sites Gallop polls: seven in ten Americans say they are Christian, but only four in ten know that Jesus gave the "sermon on the mount." Only 27% of UK seminary students could accurately trace the Biblical time line. (pp 18-19) He quotes Theologians such as Daniel J. Estes saying that aspects of the Bible are irrelevant, but of course Avalos doesn't show the context--in which that quote actually means that we need more people to learn the Bible because they are missing the relevance.
Or, if they stick up for the relevance, they are part of the propaganda machine that props up the illusion. He doesn't acknowledge any sort of possibility that people who actually think deeply and learn about it could come up with a few honest issues where it is relevant.
Moreover, the way he butchers the concept of the religious a priori makes me wonder if he knows anything about religion at all. He offers no data, no evidence, no logic, nothing of any kind other than mere suspicion in the true tradition of fascistic political correctness. By that, I mean that in trying to deflect the possibility of religion itself being intrinsically meaningful, he sites hostile reductionists who merely refuse to believe, dogmatically, that religion is valuable (Russell McCutcheon’s Manufacturing Religion and Timothy Fitzgerald); who merely suspect that the religious a priori is a gimmick designed to keep religion going. Of course Avalos has no data; these "prominent scholars of religion", as he calls them, have no data, and no logical reason other than that speaking of the religious a priori actually does help keep religion going so that must be all it’s good for.
Here he's pulled off a little bait-and-switch. In the case of McCutcheon he's mainly talking Eliade and history of religion. He’s not talking the religious a priori at all. (Avalos uses the term Sui Generis--meaning that it is good in itself--the Westernmister Dictionary of Christian Theology uses the term "religious a prori" but either is correct, they come to the same thing.) McCutcheon’s is not an argument about challenging the validity of the feeling of utter dependence for example. On the other hand Fitzgerald is not talking about this either. Both are making professional critiques of their disciplines. They are not saying that religion as a metaphysics or an ontology has no value. They are basically talking about studying them as science. Now, that is a valid goal; but it is something we have to discuss in a different context. That is a very different matter from saying that actual religious belief is of no value.
While I'm sure that unbelieving religious studies people who detest Christianity would and do attack religious experience of the kind Maslow discussed, they have no data. There are no studies that counter Ralph Hood's "M scale" or Maslow's Peak Experience. The M scale does have good data verifying it, which is why it is the major instrument used to study religious experience. This data in and of itself proves the meaningful nature of religion intrinsically and the meaningful nature of studying religion in some sense. There is no counter data. The only thing the naysayers have going for them is their cynicism.
Avalos tries to hitch his fortunes to success of Reaganite propaganda, yet at the time distance himself from its right wing implications. He merely demonstrates that the atheistic movement of today is nothing more than a one-dimensional totalizing hegemony bent on destruction of the inner life.
...Our work is part of the proliferation of books preoccupied with the finality of different aspects of human experience. Perhaps the most famous recent example is Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (2000) the most famous recent example, in which he argued that liberal democracy constitutes the "end point of mankind's ideolgoical evolution..." history ends when a stasis in the development of new ideas is reached. (p 25)
So he's at the cusp of the mega trend; the future belongs to Avalos. Avalos, Avalos, uber alis!
But what is rich is that in trying to set himself apart from the Reaganite implications of linking with Fukuyama, he demonstrates that his view is just another approach to, as Dyan put it, "sleepy time down south." He castigates Howard Clark Kee for arguing that we need a two-tier approach to Biblical studies, one for Laymen and one for scholars: "What is being proposed here is nothing short of paternalistic deception." (p 24) Then he takes to task Richard Horsley for wanting to preserve religious studies as a means of critique against imperial power; quoting another critic of Horsley he says "substituting his own hegemonic view of what he deems religious studies should be for what he deems inadequate." (p 26)
So wanting to make things better is paternalistic? Of course, Avalos also lays down his own view of what would be better in Biblical studies:
Biblical studies should be geared toward helping humanity wean itself of the Bible and toward terminating its authority completely in the modern world. Focus could then shift to the still thousands of other ancient texts still untranslated and unread.
But he's not being hegemonic? He has his own view of what we need and he's going to tear down our inner lives to give it to us, for our own good, but he's not paternalistic. Thank lack of a God for that! Of course, the other ancient world texts won’t be weird or alien and won’t contain value systems oppressive or opposed to modernity; like sacrificing children to Baal, now there's a value we can all get behind.
But Avalos knows he's hegemonic. He admits so!
...Rather than pretend that I am not hegemonic, I hold that (1) all world views, even those that claim pluralism, are hegemonic because they inevitably seek power over those that have a nonpluralistic world view; (2) a pluralistic religious hegemony is a politically expedient means to persuade people to adopt a secular humanist hegemony. (p 26)
What does this double talk mean? It means "I know I'm a hypocrite, but I'm an honest hypocrite so support my view because I want my piece of the pie!” He thinks his honesty will gain him slack on the hegemonic thing, but all it really means is, he too is paternalistic. He means his hegemony for the good (unlike us Christians of course who just want to hurt people) so that means he's being paternalistic. Avalos wants his place in the sun; and so he's asking us to destroy everything that is meaningful about being human.
The relevance of religious belief and experience is demonstrated empirically by hundreds of studies. There are no counter studies. We are born with a sense of God consciousness; our brains are wired for it. Those who have religious experiences such as Maslow's "Peak Experience" find
vast advantages across the board: more self-actualization, better physical health, less depression, better mental health, better integration into society, much higher sense of purpose and meaning, much higher sense of loss of fear of death. This is demonstrated through
hundreds of empirical studies.
That is relevance of the highest order.
Relevance is where you find it. It's true that the "fiddly bits" of the Bible are not relevant in modernity (the ritual purity laws, the tendency to promote war, slavery, etc.) The ritual purity laws of the Hebrews are not relevant unless one is studying to be a Rabbi. The Genesis creation story is not relevant scientifically in the modern age. Sorry to disappoint any creationist readers of the CADRE, (of course Layman and BK would urge me to say this is my view not necessarily that of all the group) but that's the way I see it. But so what? The Bible isn't supposed to be a science textbook. We have modern science for that. Just because we don't need to turn to the Bible to understand the natural process of the development of life on Earth doesn't mean the Bible is worthless. It means it's relevant in a different way. It is relevant as mythology, because mythology is based upon the manipulation of archetypes and that speaks to the psyche in a powerful way (see Campbell, Hero With A Thousand Faces.)
Avalos is banking on the idea that most people are too lazy to seek out what that way is. Relevance is where you find it, and if we find the Bible to be relevant then it is so. Why are we seeking to take our clues about relevance from a guy who thinks Shakespeare has no intrinsic value? Shakespeare is the most profound writer in the English language and one of the most acute observers of human nature. His themes are universal. Avalos seems not to know the difference between ancient and timeless. Universal themes are timeless.
Of course, we don't find timeless themes in the Bible? Minorities struggling for freedom and trying to find their place in the world; those who are past their prime and giving up on their dreams finding new hope; the courage of a family to seek truth in the unknown; a man who works for years to obtain his goal, only to be cheated out of it and given something else, but who continues to work again to obtain it; sibling rivalry, love, honor, betrayal, forgiveness, redemption. None of that is in the Bible!
Or maybe none of those things matter--those are all inner life things, we need to stop that inner life because it's not quantified and we can't have certain knowledge about it.
Relevance is where you find it; and two billion people on Earth find it in the Bible. True, many of them don't understand much about the Bible, but they know that "love your neighbor as yourself" and "for God so loved the world" get them through their Mondays. There is no greater test of relevance.
Of course Avalos might accept greeting cards with nice little Bible verses, but the identity politics PC crowd he seeks to placate would not allow one to have an inner life of intellectual nature where one studied the world and made her/his own judgments of it.
Those of us who came up in the 60s want that. If we find little niceties in the Bible we should seek to understand it better. Understanding it in the historical and cultural context of his day, and seeking to translate its values into modern parlance, is simply the job of theologians. This is one of the main tasks of outfitting one's intellectual life as a Christian--and Avalos has no right to squawk. On the contrary, that's what he should be doing, too, as the bearer of the knowledge!--but instead he uses that mantel to destroy the source.
But let us back up and address the major issue, which laces Avalos's introduction, as well as his article to the SBL, and I suspect much of Avalos's work. That is the issue of values. The Bible teaches old outmoded values; it offers examples of slaughter and genocide and slavery, so says Dr. Avalos.
Of course, as a good liberal Christian I would seek to understand those things in context and to understand the ancient in context of the contemporary. Not only Avalos but most atheists I see on the net, want us to believe that these passages in the Bible not only legitimize social oppression but that they actually cause it!
I will argue that this is not only untrue, it is empirically disproved. In fact I will argue that the Bible is always of great social relevance because it has always spurred social consciousness and reform. These are matters of historical fact.
We know that the civil rights movement was largely motivated by the Bible. Civil rights workers tapped into an old tradition, very much at the core of the abolition movement, that found the Bible not a source of oppression but of encouragement and liberation. They did not call the major Civil rights organization "The Southern Christian Leadership Conference" for nothing! The major figure in the Civil Rights movement was not a minister for nothing. The link between the Bible and liberation goes way back, in the history of liberalism (first abolition group in America, Pheobe Palmer and the Methodist Woman's Association--same people did the first Women's Suffrage group in America) but also in the history of American social justice. But have we forgotten the Baragan brothers? Christianity and the Bible were a big influence upon the anti-war movement in the 60s as well. In fact we can find historically that Christianity has influenced and led to reform, revolution, and radical movements throughout history.
From Joachim of Flora and his thirteenth century revolt of the poor, to sixteenth century peasant revolts in south Germany, to the folks at Lo Chambo (who hid Jews from the Nazis and some of them died doing that--where Camus stayed when the wrote his great novel Le Peste--but I'm sure Avaols would find that of no intrinsic value, being literature and all.) The Ranters, the Levelers, The Diggers, the Quakers--all were revolutionaries or social activists inspired by the bible. Read the Journal of John Woolman to see how this major voice in the early abolition movement was inspired by the Bible. Also consult William Wilburforce, and the abolitionists of the early nineteenth century as well.
Avalos's arguments are themselves totally irrelevant, because he ignores liberation theology as though it doesn't exist. I was a seminary student and (if I do say so myself) a very active political activist in the Central America Solidarity Movement of the 80s. I can tell you liberation theology was a major movement of the day, and the Bible was a source of its inspiration. Liberation historians demonstrate that the Christian left is very old, and it has been involved in every movement in every time period including the beginning of Imperial Christianity, when Olympia the Deaconess gave away her family fortune to free slaves (Constantinople of the 300s). Most people begin to date liberation theology with the radical priests of the `60s. If they know the history of the modern movement, they begin with CLAMB and Christians for Socialism in the `50s. If they are really historically minded, they start with A Theology for the Social Gospel, by Walter Rauschenbusch. But, Rauschenbusch, while he could be viewed as a forerunner, and while he called himself a "Christian Socialist," may really represent the end of an older tradition of Christians in the labor movement of the late 19th century (his work was written in 1917). Those who came before him, in the labor movement, represent a vast movement of religiously minded reformers with antecedents in the Second Great Awakening, much of which Hudson documents. (Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion In America: A Historical Account of the Development of American Religious Life. Second ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965, 1973, 310-315.). Enrique Dussel uncovers a long history, far more indepth than we have time for here.
The point is that the "religious left", including all forms of Christian socialism, and left-leaning social reformers, is very old and represents a whole world unto itself. It is well worth learning, and demonstrates the irony and tragedy of the current climate in the academy, a climate in which academics would rather feed their urge to bash religion rather than create a dialogue with thinkers who have access to a vast tradition they themselves know little about. (History and the Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1976). Another excellent source is Smith's book on revivalism (Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War. Baltimore, London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957, 129-80.)
While many conservative readers of the CADRE may feel that they have another side to the issues of the Central America movement, one thing we can both agree upon, weather for good or ill: a large part of the support given the FSLN (National Sandinist Liberation Front--the "Frente", the dreaded "Sandinistas") and those who took part as Nicaraguans in that movement, drew their inspiration from their Christian faith.
For a strong sense of the crucial nature of religion to the struggle in Latin America see Penny Lernoux's book, (Penny Lernoux, Cry of The People. Penguin Books, 1982. 29-30). Let us remember priests such as Father Camillio Torres, who was the first priest, but not the last, to take up arms in the struggle. He died in Colombia in 1966. His example sparked much interest in liberation movements throughout Latin America. For a look at religious involvement in the Nicaraguan revolution in particular, see Margaret Randal, Sandino's Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle. (Vancouver, Toronto: New Star books, 1981.) The example of Thomas Borge in Nicaragua, the FSLN Minster of Interior, is awe-inspiring in that he confronted the torturer who tortured him and killed his wife. He forgave the man and let him live because Borge had become a Christian and read in the Bible to turn the other cheek and forgive. Nothing is more touching than the letter he wrote to Father Ernesto Cardinal about his new found faith. Borge was the leader of the FSLN, the "Sandinistas" in Nicaragua. He was one of the first to help start the Sandinista party. Some might argue that his commitment to religious belief was mere propaganda; but, while he was yet a guerrilla on the run in the mountains, he sent for a priest (Ernesto Cardinal, later to become a member of the Sandinista party). He wished to discuss religion with the priest. The simple note he sent is one of the most moving documents of the Latin American struggle.
"I knew a God who joyfully rang the church bells and dressed up when General Somoza visited León... a God who forgave the heavy sins of the rich... I slew that God without mercy within my conscience. It would seem, however, that God does not wish to die. In the jungles of Colombia there has been a new Bethlehem. Camilio Torres told us before dying, or perhaps told us in dying. Father I await you..."
The priest made his way through the mountains to talk with the revolutionary, and the Nicaraguan revolution kicked in the womb. (Andrew Reding, Christianity and Revolution: Tomás Borge's Theology of Life. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987.) Liberation Theology was spreading to South Korea and all of Asia as the Berlin wall came down. (see James H. Cone, Minjung Theology: People as the Subjects of History. ed. by the Commission on Theological Concerns of the Christian Conference of Asia. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1981)
I have no problem with finding more scholars to read more ancient texts that are now being ignored. The study of the Bible is not forcing anyone away form such study. Dr. Avalos himself could have chosen to spend his time studying these texts--then we would be enlightened by his brilliant scholarship!
People are ignorant of the Bible; we need more scholars to teach it. Ignoring the Bible is not the answer. The Bible is not all there is to the Christian tradition. Christianity is a living tradition, with many sources, not the least of which is one's own inner life. The inner life consists of prayer, but also intellectual understanding, literacy, and not just how to read the labels of aspirin bottles but an understanding that there is a world of letters. I cannot abide academics who hate the world of letters. This is the essence of the one-dimensionalizing tendencies of atheism and reductionism that the PC crowd have taken up--and Avalos is their spokesperson. They want to further one-dimensionality at the expense of Western culture. The Bible is at the heart of Western culture. Avalos wants to persuade us that Biblical values are ancient-world and thus foreign to us, but they are the heart of our culture. All of our modern values are the grandchildren of Biblical values. Democracy; autonomy; selfhood; the individual; basic human rights; humane treatment of the poor; worker's rights; even modern science--it all comes out of the Christian tradition.
Arnold J. Toynbee observed that Christianity freed humans from the cyclical understanding of time. Christianity made “history” in the modern sense possible. Ancient paganism, the texts with which Avalos wants to replace Biblical studies, would not have allowed us progress in history, or even a modern concept of history at all; they were focused upon the eternal return of the god/goddess from winter to spring. The same things over and over again. But Jesus died and rose once for all, and then we venture forward in time toward an eschatological horizon. There will be no end of history. History will continually sublate itself until the final and once for all return of Christ.
We can make progress. But we can only make progress if we remember who we are and where we came from. We cannot abandon the inner, the world of books and letters, our ability to think, faith in God, or our understanding of culture as it was and as it will be. This makes the Bible far more relevant than anything, and it means that people with Ph.D's in Biblical studies have an awesome responsibility: a responsibility to promote the world of letters, not to abort it. One is called to teach, not to persuade the student to give up learning. We need to learn more about the Bible. We need to talk up the Bible, we need to educate people on it, and we need to help students develop their own little worlds lined with books so they can understand the interrelationship between the Bible and the culture. I fear this is something for which many of our modern teachers are not equipped.