Polar Tension…

Last week was a very good week, especially for my CV.*  First, on Wednesday I heard back from the editors of a collection of essays to which I’ve contributed a paper with the news that they were accepting my 4th revision for publication.  Yay!  Second, on Friday I heard back from a peer-reviewed journal saying that after the review process they are accepting my submission to the journal for publication, with some relatively minor revisions.  Double yay!

As much as this is all very happy and exciting news, the acceptance of these two particular papers in the same week has caused me to reflect on a rather odd tension in my academic work.  The first paper, the one that’s being published in a book of essays, is an analysis of the historiography of the Animal Apocalypse of 1 Enoch (title: “(Re)Visionary History: Historiography and Religious Identity in the Animal Apocalypse“).**  It’s a pretty standard biblical studies paper.  It’s methodologically eclectic, but mostly focuses on literary, historical, and sociological concerns.  The second paper is being published in the Journal of Theological Interpretation and is about the hermeneutics of allegorical interpretation…it’s kind of an apologetic for interpreting according to the spiritual sense, though in a weirdish way.  It’s a really hard paper to describe in a couple of sentences (title: “Scripture as Semiotic: Theological Interpretation and the Multiple Senses of Scripture”).***

These two papers are almost polar opposite in approach and intent, and this is pretty representative of a lot of my academic writing thus far.  I do work that’s focused on literary and sociological (especially sociolinguistic) analyses of ancient literature (especially HB/OT, but also broader 2nd Temple era stuff), and I do work that tries to engage the Bible as Christian Scripture, including questions about canon and theological hermeneutics.  Here’s the thing…I’m not really all that sure how these things fit together.  I have a deep suspicion that they do.  I think about it mostly in terms of different levels of abstraction.  But, I also know that at least some (maybe lots? or even most?) of the biblical studies guild sees these as two opposed and incompatible kinds of work.  Some people argue that biblical studies is meant to be a secular endeavor focused on history, literature, and sociology (and related concerns), and other people argue that biblical studies is meant to be a theological activity performed for the community of faith.  These get presented as polar opposites.  Maybe they are polar opposites.

If they are polar opposites then I think I’m going to have to get used to the tension between these two poles, because I’m not really willing to stop doing either kind of writing.

*The CV thing is important because I’m in the process of applying to a couple of biblical studies positions, so getting to add two lines to the “Accepted for Publication” line is happy news.

**The book began as last year’s Canadian Society of Biblical Studies session on ancient Israelite historiography.  The final product will include the essays from the session, and several invited papers.  The title is Prophets and Prophecy in Ancient Israelite Historiography.  Should be out in the next year, and I think will be well worth a look.

**Ironically both the collection of essays and the journal are published by a single publishing house: Eisenbrauns.  Maybe I’m not the only one feeling the tension here.

The Bible isn’t a bible…

A while ago Julia O’Brien had a post where she noted that in our culture we use the word “Bible” to refer to instruction manuals of all kinds.  She suggested that as long as we keep labeling the Bible as such people will think of it as an instruction manual and avoid it as literature.  She’s right of course, but there’s an even bigger problem for those of us who are Christians.  The bigger problem is that people will think of the Bible as an instruction manual and ignore it as Scripture.  No, the two things are not the same.

The Bible is a collection of a wide variety of literature which was written over a very long period of history (hundreds of years).  The primary unifying qualities of the Bible are that it all has to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that over the course of time these books came to be thought of as revelatory literature by the broad community of faith.  That is to say, the Bible is about God and it was “chosen” (not in the sense of one time conscious decision, but in the sense of a long and organic progression) by the Church.  The consequence of this is that the Bible has many witnesses that often stand in deep tension with one another.  There is tension between the prophets and the Torah, between the prophets and the lament literature, between the Apocalyptic literature and the Gospels, and between the letters of Paul and the catholic letters.  There is tension all over.  The Bible does not have one, single, easily summarized, unitary message.  It is not an instruction book.  Your Bible is not a bible.

I have heard it said that all biblical passages fall into two categories.  They are all either 1) promises, or 2) instructions.  Wrong.  Are there promises in the Bible?  Sure.  Are there instructions in the Bible?  Sure.  But there is a whole lot more as well.  There is poetry that describes pain.  There are narratives that tell tales of conflict and confusion, and of triumph and joy.  There are longing love letters.  There are instances of purest hate.  In the Bible you will find a wide variety of literary genres, a wide variety of themes, a wide variety of people, a wide variety of really almost everything.  That shouldn’t be scary, but for some reason this scares evangelicals.  It scares us so much that we aren’t allowed to critique the Bible, we aren’t allowed to ask it difficult questions.  We accept it all dogmatically because we think it’s all dogmatic, but it isn’t.  There is room to question and challenge the Bible.  Do you know how I know this?  Because the Bible questions and challenges itself.  Ezekiel questions the Torah.  Lamentations questions Deuteronomy and the great deuteronomistic history.  Jesus questions the Law, even as he says that he does not set aside even one jot of it.

The great power and theological depth of the Scripture is found within these points of tension, and again within the tension between our lives today and the various parts of this ancient collection of books.  The Bible is like a stringed instrument in this respect.  It only works because of great tension.  Stop trying to take the tension out of the Bible.  If you take away the tension, smoothing over and dumbing down and making everyingthing instructions and promises, all you get is a poorly tuned instrument and really bad music.