Akma on Uncritical Criticism

Posted on by Brooke

Akma has resumed his blog series, "How to Do Exegesis," with a post describing an example of "critical scholarship" sneaking in uncritical or fallacious moves (like poisoning the well, or ad hominem, or the non sequitur).

Yesterday I applauded the SBL's new "blurb" concerning its standards for "critical" content and argument in presentations offered at its annual meetings. I remarked that a hallmark of critical scholarship is its availability to critique regarding the truth of its premises and the soundness of its arguments. Akma's post is an excellent lesson in what that kind of critique can look like in action.

Go enjoy!

[Akma on Uncritical Criticism was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/04/13. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

"Farewell to SBL" Revisited: Biblical Studies, Religious Faith, and the New "Blurb"

Posted on by Brooke

We've just emerged from that exciting time of year when scholars in biblical and religious studies await word on whether their presentation proposals have been accepted by the sessions of the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion.

Those in the SBL whose proposals are accepted will have found this blurb included in the congratulatory emails that they receive:

Please note that, by submitting a paper proposal or accepting a role in any affiliate organization or program unit session at the Annual or International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, you agree to participate in an open academic discussion guided by a common standard of scholarly discourse that engages your subject through critical inquiry and investigation.

It hardly looks like something to get excited about, unless you see it as one stage in a current unfolding controversy in the field and in the SBL. If you do, then you will know why one scholar of my acquaintance refers to it as "the Hendel clause."


Ron Hendel, in the July/Aug 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, wrote an opinion piece "Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies." There, he criticized the SBL for blurring the distinction between critical (or "secular") biblical study and faith-based biblical study. Examples included the publishing in RBL of book reviews that adopt a non-neutral stance on confessional or denominational reading of the Bible, and having sessions at the SBL Annual Meeting that turn out to presuppose a confessional stance or that proselytize.

The SBL's formal response to Hendel's BAR article refuted the more bombastic and inferential elements of Hendel's opinion piece, without directly addressing the basic question raised: What is the role, in the SBL, of claims whose arguments grant methodological privilege to sectarian dogma or private revelation?

[Update: I do find an email sent to SBL meembers by John Kutsko, as executive director of SBL, in August 2010, in which the substance of Hendel's concerns are addressed more directly. I should add that there, John writes that an SBL initiative to redraft program unit guidelines regarding critical inquiry preceded Hendel's piece.]

Hendel went on to write a follow-up rebutting the SBL's response along with a responsive piece by James Crossley and its comment thread. The matter was well discussed in the blogosphere (search for "Farewell to SBL" in your favorite search engine for more results). Naturally, the affair drew out the sadly predictable proportion of commenters insisting (irrelevantly) that people of faith can do biblical studies too! (a claim not disputed by Hendel and not germane to his opinion piece).

The SBL "blurb"

Against this background, I judge that the new SBL "blurb" cuts through the noise gets things exactly right: Hendel's piece was not about atheism, or about cutting people of faith out of biblical studies. It is not about what people are or are not at all (people of faith, or evangelical, or atheist, or anything). It is about what people do or do not in their scholarship.

Critical Biblical Scholarship: If your argument consists entirely of publicly available evidence and an explicit line of reasoning, subject to critique if found to be logically unsound (for example, depending on premises not demonstrable or on logical fallacies), then what you are doing is open and critical—sometimes called "secular"—biblical scholarship. This is scholarship to which all persons may contribute, regardless of their faith commitments.

Confessional Biblical Theology: If your argument grants methodological place to sectarian dogma or private revelation, then what you are doing is some form of confessional biblical theology. This can be an excellent theological discipline, and in many forms presupposes, and rigorously participates in, the results of critical biblical scholarship. It can be "critical" according to its standards and within the rules of its own game. Nonetheless, this is "in-house" scholarship, conducted in a closed circle of those who assent to the dogma or revelation presupposed in the argument.

Let's look at that SBL "blurb" again, in this light:

Please note that, by submitting a paper proposal or accepting a role in any affiliate organization or program unit session at the Annual or International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, you agree to participate in an open academic discussion guided by a common standard of scholarly discourse that engages your subject through critical inquiry and investigation. (emphases mine)

The substance of Hendel's criticism is, as far as I can see, addressed. At the same time, this excludes nobody in terms of who they are or what they believe. It does restrict SBL sessions to a particular set of activities: open discussion (not limited to a closed circle) guided by a common standard of discourse (not a standard shaped by private confessional claims), involving critical inquiry (nobody's claims are "off limits," by special pleading of privately-held commitments, to evidentiary and logical testing).

What are your own thoughts on the new SBL "blurb"? Does it address the problems described by Hendel? Does it create new problems? What ancillary issues, if any, continue to haunt the background?

["Farewell to SBL" Revisited: Biblical Studies, Faith, and the New "Blurb" was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 20121/04/12. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

“Active Reading” for Seminary Learners

Posted on by Brooke

I did my first research paper as a Masters student. I know, I know. My wife, having come up through Jesuit secondary and undergraduate schooling, can’t believe it either. In any case, when we talk about the wide range of preparation with which students arrive at seminary, I do get it: in many undergraduate programs, the research paper doesn’t come up. And as for secondary school, anyone who doesn’t avoid hard work in high school simply isn’t trying.

When I did begin my Masters program, and the 50%-of-grade research/thesis paper met me right at the door first semester, I was well positioned to learn the ropes quickly. In my family of origin, curiosity had been rewarded, we all read like hell, and there was a normalcy to spending several hours at the library—or on a solo bike trip exploring the four points of the compass, or digging up the back yard—and talking about what kind of stuff you’d found out about. (You’d get a killer spanking for digging up the yard, but could still talk freely of your findings.) So I read up on “the thesis paper,” memorized every word of the professor’s instructions in the syllabus, and tried to “go and do likewise.” With great success, because while I was inexperienced with the form, I was pretty well prepared by a formation that was (might as well say it) atypical, and even—with regard to the factors relevant here—privileged.

This is all on my mind as I read articles about “active reading,” a mode of reading that is natural to me because what else do you do after reading except yammer about it in excruciating detail to an older sister (thanks, Jul, thanks, Kay), but which is not, it turns out, natural to everybody who experiences a call to be a leader in the church.

My “Intro to Old Testament” syllabus changes a lot, but often involves having the students read journal articles or essays in edited books. This semester, I am having them read only a handful or so, but I have developed a new activity for the reading: we are to identify the article’s thesis or central idea, the evidence that it incorporates into its argument, and the elements of its line of reasoning. My hope is that this will help them to think of their final paper in such structured terms. (They will also be writing the paper in four stages, offering each other peer review for the first three stages.)

The first reading assignment is going on this week (Christopher Rollston’s “The Rise of Monotheism in Ancient Israel: Biblical and Epigraphic Evidence,” Stone-Campbell Journal 6 [2003]: 95-115; PDF available). Having allowed them to work through that one as best they can, I plan to introduce helps for “active reading” that they can use for articles assigned later in the course.

The following helps are available at the Glencoe Online “Teaching Today” site:

My idea is to model the use of some or all of these when we discuss the Rollston article, then assign them to demonstrate use of any one of them the next time we read a journal article or essay from an edited book. My hope is that the students who are already well positioned to read actively will find the activity something of a cake walk (while probably still benefiting from exposure to new processes in active reading), while the students who are relatively new to active reading might enjoy some breakthroughs in how they interact with reading: breakthroughs that just might pay off throughout their Masters work.

Instructors, do you ever assign activities to enhance active reading? Students, can you imagine profiting from assignments of this kind?

[“Active Reading” for Seminary Learners was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2011/03/01. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

"Uh, What Kinds of Biblical Historical Conclusions Do You Usually Have Here?"

Posted on by Brooke


After accepting Professor Bruce Waltke’s resignation, for having spoken aloud about the plain facts of the state of our knowledge concerning the natural world, Reformed Theological Seminary Campus President Michael Milton gushed enthusiastically about the vast spectrum of scientific/historical conclusions that the seminary would find acceptable from its faculty:

“Oh, we got both kinds: Young Earth Creationism and Old Earth Creationism!”[1]

Milton said that the seminary allows “views to vary” about creation, describing the faculty members there as having “an eight-lane highway” on which to explore various routes to understanding. Giving an example, he said that some faculty members believe that the Hebrew word yom (day) should be seen in Genesis as a literal 24-hour day. Others believe that yom may be providing “a framework” for some period of time longer than a day. Both of those views, and various others, are allowed, Milton said.

But while Milton insisted that this provides for “a diversity” of views, he acknowledged that others are not permitted. Darwinian views, and any suggestion that humans didn't arrive on earth directly from being created by God (as opposed to having evolved from other forms of life), are not allowed, he said, and faculty members know this.

Here’s a hint to President Milton, but especially to any prospective students considering places like Reformed Theological Seminary:

  • no matter how “diverse” the spectrum of “acceptable” conclusions,

  • if an institution draws a line anywhere and says, “The conclusions of your research may extend here, but no further; beyond this line your inquiries may not lead you,” then

  • you are not in an institution of learning. In fact,

  • you couldn’t be more in the dark if you were stuffed into a sack.

I was going to add that those who enforce such parameters or assent to them should be willing to stop using the internet, and all computers (which rely on those merely theoretical critters called “electrons”); forego the MRI, the CAT scan, antibiotics, and all of modern medicine, returning to the leech-craft of their forebears; grow their own food, eschewing the disease-resistant strains available at market; keep the radio off, doing without satellite-produced early warning of natural disasters. After all, these are all the results of unbounded critical inquiry, and have arisen only where such inquiry has won out over efforts to suppress it.

But then I realized that these folks won’t return to their pre-modern dystopia without dragging everyone else along by force, so sorry, they’re just going to have to learn, one at a time, to live in the actual world, with its pesky, bias-challenging data. If one fears that one doesn’t know how, I offer the gentle and redoubtable Professor Waltke as an example.

For other feedback in the biblioblogosphere, see John Hobbins’ response and his round-up of other responses, and more recently, Jim Getz.

BACK TO POST “Creationism,” including so-called Intelligent Design, is always the view that God created all the species in the form that they have today: in other words, that evolution leading to speciation has not happened.

["Uh, What Kinds of Biblical Historical Conclusions Do You Usually Have Here?" was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/04/10. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Finally: Proof of God's Existence

Posted on by Brooke

A student informs me on Facebook that National Geographic Channel is offering its annual Easter season woo-fest, as indicated in this almost unendurable article in the Telegraph (“New series…new explanation…Egypt…Exodus blah blah volcanic ash yada yada algae etc”).

No, I am not saying that proof of God’s existence is found in the tendentious quote-mining of scientists by entertainers to sell a reductionist, sensationalist narrative product to gullible yokels rendered nearly helpless by years of substandard science education and the polarizing media invention of false equivalencies.

I am saying that it is found in this: when I wrote the web URL of the Telegraph article into a Facebook comment addressed to a colleague, the “captcha”[footnote] presented to me was this:

by weasels

Top that, Anselm and Aquinas, if you can.

BACK TO POST A “captcha” is when you have to read and copy some scribbly text in order to prove to a web site that you are not a spam robot. You sometimes have to do that when you write a comment on web sites, especially if your comment includes a web link.

[Finally: Proof of God's Existence was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/03/29. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Public Evidence and Sectarian Claims in SBL

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What does it look like for a person of Jewish or Christian religious faith to—as a matter of method—bracket her sectarian claims about the Bible in her investigation into the content and context of biblical texts? And why is it necessary that she be willing to learn to do so?

As some of you will know, a conversation has been underway about book reviews in biblical studies that appear, as a matter of academic method, to privilege sectarian claims (sometimes along with the reviewed book itself). Alan Lenzi has raised up occasional samples, and one in particular has generated some conversation. Calvin at the Floppy Hat wrote a thoughtful post that garnered some comments.

The readers at Art Boulet’s finitum non capax infiniti, especially, have produced a comment thread especially worthy of attention. It's not a record-breaker in terms of length or number of participants, but it is clearly drawn and notably free of distracting polemics.

The basic question underlying the discussion—what does it mean for anyone, religious or not, to engage in “academic biblical studies” over against sectarian apologetics—may be of special value to students in higher education who are being asked to make this distinction, or to religious laypeople who wonder how seminary “book learning” differs from confessional “Bible study.” By all means, take a look.

[Public Evidence and Sectarian Claims in SBL was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/03/27. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Darwin's Eve Mythicism with McGrath

Posted on by Brooke

James has been writing onmythicismlately (the conviction that there is no historical figure behind the New Testament depictions of Jesus; the idea is that several contemporary myths coalesced into a single invented figure).

The “-ism” is important, the suffix implying that this perspective is not a matter of reasoned argument but of dogmatic adherence. For this reason, James’s comparison to Creationsm is apt: James means to say that reasoned argument fails both creationists and mythicists, and that they appeal instead to fallacious lines of argument. Notice, in this regard, the epithet that creationists use for the theory of natural selection as the main vehicle for the fact of evolution: “darwinism.” In this way, creationists seek to suggest that there are two equally valid “isms” from which to choose, when in fact the one arises from public reasoned argument, demonstrates extraordinary explanatory power, finds support from evidence in virtually every field of science, and (most importantly) is inherently provisional pending new discoveries…while the other is held not provisionally but absolutely, resting not on an evidentiary foundation but rather the privileging a particular interpretation of a limited number of biblical proof-texts.

Tomorrow is Darwin Day. Celebrate with a trip over to Exploring Our Matrix.

Science Denial (NPR Science Friday)

Posted on by Brooke

I mentioned yesterday the denial of history, specifically Holocaust-denial. While I wrote that post, I happened also to be listening to a podcast about another form of public misinformation: science denial.

On NPR’s Science Friday, Ira Flatow interviews Michael Specter, who is the author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives (Amazon link).

The interview itself is not at all a typical “science v. religion” piece, and while I judge that if anything Specter soft-peddles the role of religionists in science denial, he successfully puts religion-based science denial into the larger context of our national pandemic (my words, not his) of irrational thinking, and of the calculated encouragement of irrational thinking by groups that benefit from the denial of science.

Unfortunately, Specter initially seemed to encourage a “blame the scientists” approach. He was simply (and rightly) trying to say that scientific progress itself moves too slowly for the public to become acutely aware of its astonishing but tortoise-paced successes. However, I think much of the fault there lies with the unrealistic promises of school officials writing press releases and the willful scientific ignorance of media editors, and not with the scientists themselves.

You need not be especially vested in the “science v. religion” public discourse to enjoy the interview. But, anyone in religious studies or religious education might be particularly interested in how Specter places religiously motivated denial of science into a larger cultural context of unreason.

Why We Teach: Mammoth Teeth and “Over-Education”

Posted on by Brooke

Have you heard the one yet about the groundskeeper and the mammoth tooth? (h/t to P.Z. Myers.) A terrific example of the small, unpredictable wonders made possible when learners are encouraged to view the world with an eye that is curious, well-informed, and trained in critical habits.

Responding to the possible counter-moral that good education mightn’t lead to prestigious employment, one commenter at Pharyngula objects that high school science isn’t simply for producing a generation of professional scientists. It is, rather, primarily:

…intended to try and make students better equi[p]ped to solve problems by thinking through them systematically (and to give them some useful/interesting facts in the process). In this case it seems to have worked.

In other words, this “over-educated” groundskeeper isn’t only spotting mammoth teeth, he is presumably turning his alert attention and high-school-trained critical faculties to the whole range of his personal, political, professional, recreation, perhaps spiritual, life. At least, on a good day.

I don’t make my seminary classes intentionally unpleasant, but I do make them as rigorous as possible, because a part of my dream for the church is that, with each graduating class, we turn out a platoon of “over-educated” leaders who are, effectively, little time bombs of alert attention and critical faculties, waiting to be tripped off by whatever mammoth teeth come their way on a good day.

How about you? Do you find yourself using your education for more than filling your job description? How so? If you teach, do you educate or “over educate”? Do you know any other mammoth-teeth stories?

Changing the Rules: Being Religious at Work & Play

Posted on by Brooke

This post leads up to a link: this link. But it’s a short lead-up, so go ahead and read me first!

Once, my young son went off to my sister’s for a couple of days and a night. They played some baseball, some tag, some handful of your usual backyard games. When I picked him up, my sister’s children said to me, “Hey, we figured out what the ‘J’ stands for in his name” (J is his middle initial.) I gamely asked, “What does it stand for?”

“Je-changin’ the rules!” they cried, cracking up together.

Every child goes through it, and it’s tempting for everyone. When the game doesn’t seem to be going our way, we want to change the rules in our favor. Eventually, we learn that when we give in and try to change the rules, we aren’t playing tag, or baseball, or much of anything anymore: nothing is getting done except us rehearsing our tired, unchanging, irrelevant apologetics. We are rightly told by others to play ball or go home: everyone else trying to get something done, and done well.

This lesson is good practice, because not every activity with rules is a game. People who are “je-changin’” the rules in the workplace aren’t called “bad sports.” They are called “corner-cutters,” “scammers,” or “perjurers,” the “recently fired.” Depending on the consequences, they may be called “manslaughterers,” or “perpetrators of negligent homicide”: that well-meaning fool with the bewildered look on his face getting dragged off at the end of Law and Order, his wake of surviving victims sobbing helplessly on the edge of the screen.

James McGrath has a good post on the impulse—common among Christian newcomers to religious studies but also considered by some to be found in higher places—to be “je-changin’ the rules” in the workplaces of scientific and historical inquiry. “Christian baseball”? By all means, have a look.

[A little later: Art has a related discussion going on: does “theology” fail to be ethical in a way that “religious studies” succeeds?]

Barack Hussein Obama Anti-Christ Video Debunked. Sigh.

Posted on by Brooke

Debunking dishonest Bible-woo is tiresome (but not hard: this post took me less than 75 minutes from conception to Publish), but has to be done. Let's be clear: the maker of this video starts with the conclusion he wishes to reach (that the President is the “antichrist” [whatever that is, which is a topic for another day]). He then commits whatever sleight-of-hand and misdirection is necessary to work backward from that conclusion to an impressive-sounding biblical basis. We'll link the video, then take it step by step.

[Update, 2011/01/18: the original poster has removed the video. You can still find a version of it here, with some attempts at bolstering the video’s claims.]


“I will report the facts.” Nearly of these “facts” are false:

“Jesus spoke these words originally in Aramaic…” This is not known. It may be that Jesus preached both in Aramaic and in the Greek of the New Testament. If he did preach in Aramaic, there is no reason to be optimistic about our ability to retrovert the Greek of the gospels into that alleged Aramaic original. Imagine giving an English translation of Don Qixote to twelve English-speaking scholars who had never heard Spanish spoken by a native, and having them all retrovert the English translation to the original Spanish. Know how many completely different “originals” you’d get? That’s right: twelve.

“…which is the oldest form of Hebrew.” No, it isn’t. Aramaic doesn’t precede Hebrew. They are sibling languages, with significant differences in vocabulary, morphology, and grammar. So, speaking in Hebrew is not “much the same way” as the way Jesus would have spoken Aramaic.

“…from the heights, or from the heavens.” Nice try: the speaker has substituted “heights” (in order to get to bamah, the word he wants to use) for “heavens” (shamayim, a word he wants to get away from because shamayim sounds nothing like “Barack Obama”). The argument from this point is not based on Jesus’ words (in any language), but on a paraphrase that the speaker finds convenient.

(We could stop here: Now that we see that the groundwork comprises crippling falsehoods, it is clear that anything built on it is pointless. We’ll continue anyway, just for the exercise.)

“…from Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary.” As Bryan mentioned on Facebook, When someone grounds their argument in the use of Strong’s concordance/dictionary, they are saying, “I do not know any Hebrew. Do not trust anything I say on the topic.” Strong’s is a tool designed for people who do not know Hebrew.

Baraq is the Hebrew word for lightning: this is a fact. It has nothing to do with the name of our President, but baraq does mean “lightning.” Barack, our President’s name, is Swahili, and related to Hebrew Berekh, “to bless.” (Think of the better known form, Barukh, “blessed.”) In other words, why would a speaker of Hebrew (or Aramaic, or Greek) would use the word “lightning” to evoke the Swahili (or Arabic) name, Barak = “blessed/blessing”?

Isaiah 14: No mention of Satan here: Isaiah is plainly talking about the king of Babylon, whom he compares to the mythic “Daystar, son of Dawn.” He says so [ref. added: Isa 14:4]. But, the Jesus of the gospel Luke may be evoking Isaiah when he says that he “saw Satan falling as lightning from the heavens,” so I’ll give this a pass.

Isa 14:14: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds.” That’s right: the word “heights” (which, you’ll recall, Jesus does not use anyway) is not associated with the falling of the Daystar, but with his (planned but not certainly achieved) ascent. Also, the “heights” are plural: the phrase is bamotê-ʿab, “the heights of the cloud.” Hear it? Not bamah, but bamotê.

“Some scholars use the O [to transliterate the conjunction waw].” No, they don’t, because it is never, never pronounced “O.” The prefixed conjunction we- or wa- becomes u- in biblical Hebrew when it precedes a bilabial consonant (b, m, p) or any consonant followed by the shewa, or half vowel (Cĕ-; think of the first vowel in a casual pronunciation of “America” or “aloof”). It is never o-. Sorry, but never.

“…or, ‘lightning from the heights.’” Okay, in the second place, the conjunction never means “from.” Hebrew (or Aramaic) has a preposition for that. The phrase baraq u-bamah (not o-bamah) will mean, “lightning and a height” (whatever the heck that is; also remember that baraq has nothing to do with “Barack”). The phrase will never, never mean “lightning from the heights.” Sorry, but never. (And in the first place, remember, Jesus never even said, “lightning from the heights.” He said, “lightning from the heavens,” which is why all this stuff about “heights” is pointless.)

Conclusion: if a Jewish rabbi today, influenced by Isaiah, were to say the words of Jesus in Luke 10:18 (seriously: why would our rabbi do this?), he would not say, “Barakh Obama.” He would not even say, baraq u-bama. Or baraq u-bamoth (lightning and heights). If he means to use Jesus’ words, he would not even say, baraq min-habbamoth (lightning from the heights). I suppose he might (might) say, baraq min-hashamayim (lightning from the heavens). So now you know why our secret Muslim president’s Arabic Kenyan birth certificate remains hidden in a clandestine madrassah in the Lincoln Bedroom: because on it, you will indeed find the true name of the antichrist…

(oh, wait, neither Isaiah, Luke, or even Revelation [or Daniel, if you care] use the word “antichrist”: it is used in the letters of John as a generic term for “unbelievers”)

…Baraq Min-Hashamayim.

If you want to see some other debunking, go see Mark Chu-Carroll at Good Math Bad Math, Michael Heiser at PaleoBabble, Bryan at Hevel, and James McGrath at Exploring Our Matrix. Each of them adds some additional arguments that I don't make here.

Let’s Play Woo: Hebrew and Physics

Posted on by Brooke

I have reason to take things easy this week, so let’s keep it light. Here is a YouTube video that I have designated as woo: it includes the trappings and language of reasoned argument, but uses various smoke and mirrors to dupe the gullible with that sweet-tasting, pseudoscientific woo.

Use the comments to play! Find as many problems as you can with the claims made by the video. Go for the details. Find more than your friends and taunt them with your bragging rights. Have fun!

Think broadly: not just about the Hebrew, but logic and fallacy, scientific inquiry, and so on.

Without further ado: (update: removed by user)

The Literal and Figurative as Subsets of Religious Speech

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I am working up a longer post on this topic, but for now, consider this statement attributed to Francis Collins, Obama’s nominee for Director of the National Institute for Health National Institutes of Health:

…he thinks the presence of the divine can be directly observed, even if it cannot be measured and tested…

Now, I would prefer a direct quote, and know that Collins’ words may have been slightly different, but I’m going to provisionally take it as stated.

When a scientist says that something is “directly observable,” but nonetheless “cannot be measured or tested,” I am inclined to think that they are not using the word “observe” in a literal way. At least they are not using it to mean, “available to the five human senses or to instruments designed to extend the human senses beyond their normal reach.”

Rather, I suspect that the word “observe” is being used as figurative speech: a metaphor, a figure, a kind of poetry. I should add that I do not consider figurative speech to be a kind of window-dressing to literal speech: a figurative utterance has cognitive uniqueness; it signifies in a way not reducible to literal speech. For example, the figurative utterance
The stars are in blossom, the moon is in flower

is not simply reducible to some literal paraphrase like, “There are many stars out, and the moon has waxed to full.” The figurative speech (Tolkien, by way, from the final chapter of The Hobbit) means uniquely: it signifies something that no other utterance can quite match. That something is not “testable or measureable,” but it is something private, a something that unfolds between the text and the individual hearer. Therefore, it is not ultimately shareable, though productive conversation on the work might be shared.

I want to say that religious claims should be divisible into two kinds: literal claims that submit to “testing and measurement” (this would include religious claims about the age of the earth, the nature of sexuality,  and so on), and figurative claims that have the status of works of art (which might also mean to effect public opinion and policy, but after the fashion of Huckleberry Finn or the Corporate American Flag rather than in the way of a scientific discovery or a poll). When we say, “God is love,” or “God answers prayer,” or “God acts in history,” we should be able to make a clear accounting as to the literalness or figurativeness of our speech, submitting the former to “testing and measurement” and the latter to the rather different critical norms of art.

Ultimately, I have hopes that this line of thinking may help introductory students in religious studies to systematize and clarify the claims they make in collaborative discussion.

Thoughts on these reflections in progress?

Satlow’s “Between Faith and Reason”

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Listening to the first of Michael Satlow’s podcasts (“From Israelite to Jew 1: Between Faith and Reason”; hat tip to Doug Mangum), I am considering assigning the podcast to my Introduction to Old Testament students in the early days of this year’s term. Satlow makes a clearer-than-usual appeal for the compatibility of religious faith and the reasoned, critical study of the claims and literature of that faith.

You can find the podcast at the link above, or by searching the iTunes Store for “Satlow.”

Dealing with DeWette: Evaluating Bias and Evidence in Biblical Studies

Posted on by Brooke

You know what my favorite thing is about blogs? Comments. By which I mean, “commenters.” A comment thread is sometimes no more than a string of unconnected exclamations or diatribes, but at best, the comments to a blog post take a genuinely interactive course and add some serious value to even the best of posts. When authors devote the same kind of care to their comments as they would to their own blog posts, sure, they add value to their own name, or “brand,” since they often (but not always) are linked to their own blogs or profiles. But more, they add value to the posts to which they comment, unpaid and (outside of the small circles who do this “web” “log” thing), unacknowledged.

I woke up this morning to belatedly discover a short exchange on DeWette, a biblical source critic who preceded the better-known Julius Wellhausen. Kevin Edgecomb finds himself rightly appalled at the anti-Judaic biases that have animated Protestant biblical scholarship, especially early source criticism. Briefly, his commenters judge that, while Kevin is correct in discerning bias, he has not made his case that a) DeWette’s source-critical conclusions lack evidentiary support, and that b) later biblical scholars have uncritically preserved DeWette’s (or Wellhausen’s) conclusions and ignored the anti-Judaic biases with which those scholars approached the biblical evidence. Doug Mangum has posted a response and a follow-up.

On the one hand, Kevin is doing exactly what he should be doing: reading the early source critics with a hermeneutic of suspicion (self-link). How do their arguments and conclusions reflect their anti-Judaic (and for that matter, anti-Roman Catholic, anti-ritual) biases? How does the rhetoric of their arguments and conclusions seek to reproduce those biases in the reader? Terribly important questions, these.

On the other hand, I’d argue that Kevin’s initial post dismisses DeWette’s conclusions without addressing his use of evidence and line of reasoning. Doug brought up the “intentional fallacy,” and I would further specify the fallacy of “poisoning the well”: the fallacious idea is that, once DeWette has been brought into (deserved or undeserved) ill repute, we can just assume that his arguments are inconsequential. Finally, Kevin makes the rather sweeping claim that later biblical source criticism has willfully ignored the plain biases in the work of its predecessors. In other words, he argues that while he reads DeWette with a hermeneutic of suspicion, biblical scholars on the whole (who agree with DeWette on dating the core of Deuteronomy to the 7th century) have not done so.

I call attention to the comments to these three posts, because they represent the kind of conversation typical of strong scholars concerning this procedural issue. How do we acknowledge the biases of our forebears (once recognized as such) while still engaging in our continuing work their use of evidence and their lines of reasoning?

It is essential that we model “best practices” in this regard, because our own students and their students will learn from our example and read us accordingly when our own biases, invisible to us, come to be recognized. On the matter of bias and evidence, as on any matter, as we comment, in such a mode can we look forward to being commented on.

Divine English Pictographs Unveiled!

Posted on by Brooke

This post will change your life, and change the way you look at everything and everyone around you. But it will be easy! So chillax and read.

This morning, I had a cup of coffee, pet the dog, and chatted with my wife. If you properly want to understand these figures in my life, you have to attend to the pictographs from which these words derive.

The c in coffee is derived from the Semitic alphabetic character gimel. Now, the gimel is a pictograph of a throwing stick. The o comes from Semitic ayin, which represents an eye. The f is derived from the waw, a hook or a nail. Finally, the e comes from Semitic he, whose pictograph represents some dude waving his arms (“hey!”). Put them together, and you see that “coffee” means “better than a stick in the eye, on which I am totally hooked, and which makes me say Hey, Hey!”

I pause for you to collect yourself.

As for my dog: The d comes from dalet, which represents a door (or a fish, but anyone can see that my dog is not a fish, even though Hebrew dag means “fish”; stay with me here). Then there’s that o from ayin (eye) again. And g, like c, comes from gimel (stick). That is, my dog keeps an eye on the door, for which service I throw him a stick.

Finally, my wife: The i is from Semitic yod (hand, or forearm). Both the w and the f come from that waw (nail, or hook, but my wife is not a hooker, so nail, please). Recall that the e is from he (hey!). So, my wife is the one with two nails in the forearm ZOMG!! MY WIFE IS JESUS!! Which totally makes me say, “Hey!”

It should be clear to you by now that an understanding of the deeper meaning of our English characters opens a window on the plans that God has for our relationships with one another and with our coffee. And that…

What? You say that language ≠ script, that the former precedes the latter, and that no speakers of English ever sat around and said, “So what shall we call this stuff over here? I don’t know, but it’s like a stick in the eye so let’s be sure to use c and o?”

I guess somebody should tell that to all those frauds who teach Hebrew like this guy does (“It’s easy! And happens to support the patriarchy!”):

Bible Woo and Easy Answers to Complicated Problems

Posted on by Brooke

Bryan Bibb writes today about religious hucksters in the business of getting rich on false promises. There, he compares the marketing of false hopes by religious television with the woo-hawking infomercials run by the same stations. I encourage you to read the whole piece. Here, I just touch briefly on one element noted by Bryan—the promise to solve all or most problems with a single easy solution—and relate it to best practices in biblical studies.

Bryan writes of those who send their money off to the innumerable heirs of Jim Bakker:

They might take a chance on a $25 book, or a $100 donation, or a $500 conference session if they think it will fix what is wrong (without them having to actually do anything about it, if there is anything indeed that can be done).

Dupes send their money to a televangelist in exactly the same way that they send it to a purveyor of quack nostrums, in the same hope of a quick cure-all that will fix what is wrong. The RationalWiki identifies this false promise as one defining characteristic of pseudoscientific woo:
A simple idea that purports to be the one answer to many diseases or problems.

In my developing ideas about “Bible woo,” I am thinking about analogous “quick and easy cure-alls” in the reading of the Bible. A major breeding ground of Bible woo is the reader’s perception of a problem in the text: not in the value-neutral sense of “some odd data that call for explanation,” but rather in the value-laden sense of “some apparent feature that can’t and shouldn’t be there, whose logical explanation is intolerable to me, and that therefore must me explained away.” A ready example is the clear evidence of multiple sources in what are traditionally called the “five books of Moses.” In this context of biblical studies, a part of Bryan’s words above leap out to me:
…if there is anything indeed that can be done…

An axiom of critical inquiry is that data are good: you follow them, and they lead to you unpredictable places that you couldn’t have found unassisted. If the logical explanations of textual data lead you to an understanding of events that makes you uncomfortable, well, nothing to be done: there you are.

The woo-meister crouches in the doorway of that uncomfortable place, promising glib solutions to these and all other uncomfortable facts of life, for a reasonable price, whether a few dollars out of one’ purse or pocket, or only a few tolerable compromises in one’s God-given human capacity to reason.