Private Thoughts of a Biblical Scholar on Faith and Academia

“Students like you scare me.” Those were the words a well-known biblical scholar at a well-known evangelical seminary said to me when I sent an enthusiastic inquiry about the possibility of studying under him in a Ph.D. program. I made the “mistake” of conveying that I dreamed of being a scholar who would make a difference in the world. Deflated, and not a little irritated, I shot back, “Don’t you find any greater meaning in your work than intellectual entertainment?” When pressed, he conceded that, yes, he did hope his research and teaching had significance beyond the academic tower. That was about eight years ago. Needless to say, I did not apply to that school. But, it was not the last time I heard a professor issue similar warnings. 

I understand what these academics are afraid of: Christian students who take the Bible out of context, “devotionalizing” it in blind religious fervor rather than producing serious scholarship. They want to protect their scholarly reputations, and that of their students’, within a mainstream academic world that often considers passionate faith to be an obstacle to sound scholarship. Not surprisingly they pass on their anxiety to students. Indeed, even though I bristled at those warnings, I absorbed them all the same. Over the last several years, I have struggled to reconcile my “idealistic” passion with the sterile halls of the academy.

I stepped into the world of biblical scholarship out of a love for Scripture. Even though I had an undergraduate education from a Christian college that required all students, including psychology majors like me, to complete a year of Bible courses, I longed for more in-depth study. Thus, after several years developing a career (first as a mental health therapist and later as a professional in university student affairs), I returned to school. Seminary was my “expensive hobby.” I paid my way through by working full-time, taking four and half years to complete a two year Master’s degree in exegetical theology.

Western Seminary nurtured my faith. The professors were not just academics, but also pastors training pastors. They cared as much about the lives of their students, if not more, than beefing up a CV with scholarly publications. During this time, Scripture was alive and invigorating for me. So much so, I longed to somehow turn this into a full-time job. The academic track seemed to be the best fit. However, I recognized I needed a broader curriculum to prepare for doctoral work and engagement with mainstream biblical studies. Thus, I applied for a few Th.M. programs. I still remember the excitement I felt when the office of admissions at Duke University Divinity School called me at work to tell me I had been accepted.

The faculty/student relationships at Duke were much more formal than my evangelical seminary, but what the school lacked in pastoral culture it made up for in top notch education. The scholarship and teaching were outstanding, and I soaked up every minute of it. I also had the deeply meaningful experience of sitting under the teaching of women biblical scholars for the first time in my life—despite growing up in the church and attending Bible college and seminary. At Duke I felt supported in my passion for studying and teaching Scripture in a way I did not among my more conservative brethren.

As my studies advanced, I went through what many evangelical students experience when they are exposed to more detailed historical-critical scholarship: disorientation. Evangelicals know the world in the text, but are less versed in the world behind the text. Too often they don’t believe the world behind the text matters as much. But socio-cultural context significantly affects how we understand the nature and message of Scripture. It is hard to dismiss historical-criticism when it sheds important light on the way ancient culture shaped the articulation of the biblical authors’ theology. This knowledge is both helpful and daunting. On the helpful side, it explains a lot to realize that the horrible curses in Deuteronomy come to us packaged in cultural artifacts of ancient near Eastern treaty curses and not God’s actual speech! On the daunting side, one comes to realize just how human the Bible is.

As I wrestled with the human side of Scripture, I also struggled to know how to reconcile historical criticism with theological exegesis. I noticed new problems with theological interpretations that I hadn’t before, interpretations that were not well reconciled with historical facts. On the other hand, merely studying the world behind the text felt vapid. I missed how Scripture used to come alive for me, and yet I could not go back to what now seemed like a naïve reading of the Bible. What I didn’t know then is that I needed what Paul Ricoeur called a “second naïveté.” Regarding various types of faith, he wrote: “No longer, to be sure, the first faith of the simple soul, but rather the second faith of one who has engaged in hermeneutics, faith that has undergone criticism, post-critical faith.”

During the “critical” phase of my faith, I felt unmoored as though I was drifting in endless space. Nothing seemed certain. The lack of certainty robbed me of incentive and desire. I could not move in any particular direction because no direction seemed sure. I could not rise up with any passion because passion requires believing ardently in something. I felt powerless, passive, and depressed. This reached a point that it was difficult to do what I previously loved, encourage people from the Scriptures. What if the Bible was more human than divine? What if God was mostly a figment of our imagination? I had never had an atheistic thought before, but now doubts assailed me. And I wasn’t the only one. While at Duke, one of the doctoral students I knew entered the program as a Christian and quit as an atheist. Many conservatives might blame this on the “evils” of the academy. But it was not the fault of the school or the teachers; it was the effect of growing up in churches that don’t teach an adequate or truthful theology of the dual authorship and nature of Scripture. Or as Mark Noll might put it, churches that are ensnared in the “scandal of the evangelical mind.”

I remained in the critical phase for at least four years, and I still feel the battle fatigue. I struggle to know where I “fit” in Christendom. Does a second naïveté spell a return to some kind of Evangelicalism? While I love how my Baptist heritage instilled in me a deep affection for Scripture, the denomination I grew up in does not adequately support women called to teach Bible. I also can no longer adhere to certain beliefs and practices such as the apologetic compulsion to eliminate all contradictions and difficulties in Scripture. Thus, I have drifted . . . from a progressive house church, to Catholic masses and RCIA courses, to an ELCA congregation, to an Anglican parish. I have often found it difficult to worship in church at all and instead experience my greatest moments of worship when I am sitting face to face with a directee during a spiritual direction session. Seeing how God is working in the life of someone else and praying for God’s love and discernment regarding the person before me reminds me of God’s active presence. Yet, I know the community of faith is important. I want to come “home” to a church family. Lately, I have longed to go back to my low church roots. But, I am uncertain what that means.

Now that I am in the dissertation stage of doctoral work, I continue to contemplate how to be a biblical scholar of faith. Abraham Heschel’s witness of bringing passion into his work inspires me. His courage to pursue what he believed was right despite rejection from colleagues reminds me I can do the same. But, blending unreined passion with sobered academics is an art. It’s like integrating theological interpretation with historical criticism. How do I take the best of what I learned in the “pre-critical” phase with the best of the “critical” in order to cultivate a post-critical vibrant faith that informs and enhances solid biblical scholarship? I am still learning to sort that out. But I know I will have reached it when it comes out in my writing. When I take more risks to be honest. When my scholarship doesn’t just touch the mind but also quickens the spirit.

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11 thoughts on “Private Thoughts of a Biblical Scholar on Faith and Academia

  1. Great read. Thank you Karen. Thank you for being honest. I think this will strike a note with more people than you think, even if they are not scholars.

  2. You and I share a lot of experiences, as well as a name! I too went through this in my journey from Baptist through Assembly of God, RCA, and Vineyard Churches. I finally found a home in the Presbyterian Church USA. I find it a denomination where education is valued and questions and differences are honored. While there is no such thing as a perfect church or denomination, I can make it a better place with what I contribute.

    Regarding scripture, –don’t confuse the window with the light coming through it. –Can anything that humans understand or participate in even remotely begin to describe and encapsulate the creator of the universe? God is greater than scripture and our human comprehension, both now and at the time the books and letters and sayings of the Bible were authored.

  3. Thanks Karen! I know you can relate. I would love to read about your own journey sometime. Have you posted something on your blog about it before? I also have been interested in your experiences as a pastor. I think the last time I saw you (and the first time we met) you had not yet gone to seminary or were not finished at least.

    Thanks for leaving a comment!

  4. Really appreciate your blog, Karen. I wondered how your faith had held up through your studies, but I am really glad you are still journeying. . . that’s a good sign of life! There are many scholars with PhDs in biblical studies who have a vital faith. I know you’ll find your way! I get why you are frustrated that you grew up in a church that did not teach an “adequate theology of Scripture”. There is a place for that (for example, I have done a seminar on textual criticism). But to be honest, most people in our churches aren’t really that interested. I’m not saying there aren’t those who have questions about the Bible—of course there are, and we need to answer those questions honestly. But when people are dealing with Life–marriage, kids, jobs, illness, finances, loss, shame, addiction–they want encouragement, hope, and most of all, the love and presence of God. Scripture, despite what might be its imperfections (in its current form or even original form) is still God-breathed, and is the most efficacious tool to tell us about God and his love for us. There’s a great line by Wordsworth: “our meddling intellect Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–We murder to dissect.” He was writing about science and nature, but I have often thought it applies to biblical studies and the Bible. If the Bible is always kept on the examining table, pinned down and splayed open, how can it be living and active in my life? Anyway, I’m glad I saw your thoughtful blog and I’ll be eager to see how you progress in your quest for “second faith”.

  5. Laurie, thanks so much for leaving a message! It is good to hear from you. One of the things I have appreciated about TLC is that it has taken study seriously by having the classes on Wednesday nights. I hope that is still going on. I wish more churches did that. It is important. Whether or not people are interested in these things depends on the situation I think. There are a good number of people who leave the church quietly because their questions are never answered sufficiently. I am especially concerned about the younger generations. There are some major shifts happening there, and a lot of them are related to an inadequate formation in basic biblical and theological teachings.

    Recently, a friend of mine who is an ordinary person in the church (at TLC actually) with no interest in scholarly conversation e-mailed me after getting to some difficult texts while going through one of those “read the Bible in a year” things. She was disturbed and asked me for help sorting it out. That ended up being the basis for one of my posts here: “Fifty Shekels for Rape? Making Sense of Old Testament Laws.” So I do think these questions come up. When I tell people I am writing my dissertation on violence in the Old Testament most people tell me they want to read it because they have a lot of questions and struggles with it. But I think there just isn’t a lot of space at church to ask and talk about these hard things.

    • Really great thoughts, and very true. We continue to have the Wednesday night classes and try to tackle harder questions (just finished one on hell . . . ). You would be an asset to any church! Let’s grab coffee in May, for sure. . . would love to see you and talk more!

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