Review of "The Bible and Its Influence"
The Bible and Its Influence (New York/Fairfield, VA: BLP Publishing, 2005)
A letter in June 2005, from Chuck Stetson, Chairman of the Bible Literacy Project (BLP), the organization that produced this book, announces its impending release and touts it as "the first textbook for academic study of the Bible in the public schools;" a later letter, in September 2005, calls it a landmark achievement. The fact that the book has, as I understand it, been adopted as a text for public schools in some thirty-eight states does indeed herald it as a significant accomplishment. Perhaps the greatest importance of the book, especially for members of the SBL, lies in the extent and nature of its potential influence upon students. The BLP has won the endorsement of legal experts, educational leaders, and representatives of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities, and its product is portrayed as a work that does not advocate any particular religious viewpoint. It is quite likely that students for the foreseeable future will enter colleges, universities, and seminaries with ideas about the Bible that have been shaped by The Bible and Its Influence (henceforth BII). Above all, these students will have their understanding of "Bible Literacy" defined by this textbook. It would seem imperative, therefore, that SBL members be familiar with this book and that, as the leading organization in North America for fostering biblical scholarship, the SBL respond formally to its advent.
It goes without saying that the task set for itself by the BLP is a formidable one—to produce a textbook that satisfies the legal requirement of not advocating a particular religious viewpoint while still passing muster with different faith communities. It should also be observed that this text is a significant improvement over similar efforts, such as the one in Texas by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which Mark Chancey has campaigned to change (http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Chancey_Bible_Curr_Revised.htm. The way in which BII accomplishes this task is by adopting an "attribution" approach, which is, in nuce, study about the Bible rather than study of the Bible. Such an approach may, for instance, attribute an interpretation to a particular religious perspective or faith community without endorsing it.
Not surprisingly, then, the best parts of this book are those that discuss the Bible's influence and importance for modern culture. Its pages are richly adorned with images of persons, documents, works of art, and the like. Most chapters have one or more boxes devoted to cultural connections—references or allusions to biblical texts in art, music, theater, and other, especially American, cultural expressions. There are also frequent boxes reserved for "The Bible in Literature," typically with quotations from well-known literary works that make use in some way of the Bible's content or themes. Another prominent feature of the book is a series of small boxes in the margins of the pages with the heading, "into everyday language." These trace the origins of familiar English phrases to the Bible or correlate them with their use in biblical texts. Finally, each of the book's fourteen units concludes with a two-page "unit feature" that further highlights some aspect of biblical study ("Exile and Return," "Literary Genres," "Parables of Mercy"), connection with literature (Milton, Shakespeare, Dante), social issues ("Exodus and Emancipation," "Thirst for Justice," "Freedom and Faith in America"), and the like.
As I read the book, I found myself wishing that all my undergraduate students were exposed to this material for the appreciation it would give them of the impact that the Bible has on their lives. I imagine, perhaps naïvely, that they would be much more interested and involved in my courses if such were the case.
The "down side" of the attribution approach is that this textbook does not engage in what most SBL members would consider academic study of the Bible. There is no real critical analysis concerning such matters as authorship, date, and historicity of biblical books. The treatment of the biblical material is essentially a superficial summary of content. Statements in the text are, for the most part, accepted at face value without the recognition that such acceptance is in itself an interpretation. Thus, Gen 2:4b-25 is referred to as the second part of the Genesis creation account (p. 31). Similarly, there is no reference to source division of the flood story or to Mesopotamian parallels. No historical problems relating to the Joseph-exodus-conquest sequence—or any other part of the Bible, for that matter—are mentioned. The section on "The Authorship of Isaiah" (p. 116) is the exception rather than the rule, and is interesting for its content. It begins with a statement that the question of who wrote Isaiah is "a point where faith traditions diverge." Noting that Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians tend to regard Isaiah as a unit by the eighth century prophet, it offers an argument for unity in the occurrence of the title "The Holy One of Israel." No comparable argument is provided for the position of liberal Jews, mainline Protestants, and Roman Catholics that there were three Isaiahs. Nor does the book indicate which view prevails in the field of biblical scholarship.
The suggestion of bias in the treatment of Isaiah's authorship is furthered, if not confirmed, by other features of the book. Most obvious is its overall layout. There are forty chapters in fourteen units, evenly divided between the two Testaments, notwithstanding the enormous discrepancy in the amount of material contained in each. As a consequence, there is a significant imbalance in the coverage afforded to distinct sections of the two Testaments. Thus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, are all consigned to one chapter, while there is one chapter devoted to each of the four Gospels and three chapters on Acts. An informal, anecdotal survey of biblical scholars listed as consultants suggests that the Evangelical Christian representative may have been solicited more regularly than others. This could, of course, have been accidental or even a mistaken impression on my part. However, it is difficult not to perceive a Christian bias driving the statement about the prologue of the Gospel of John that "John clearly reveals Jesus' divine nature" (p. 243). Other errors, though equally egregious, do not seem to be ideologically driven: for example, Hebrew "five" is transliterated humash (p. 18); Judea and Samaria are said to be predominantly Gentile in population at the time of Acts (p. 263).
It is not surprising in our current cultural environment that a textbook designed for public schools essentially ignores historical-critical problems. However, these could easily have been incorporated within the attribution approach with statements such as, "Many biblical scholars believe..." Moreover, it is not just historical criticism that is absent; synchronic methods and conclusions receive no real attention either, despite several references to the work of Robert Alter, who is also listed as a consultant. None of the actual authors or "content contributors"—Joanne McPortland, Marjorie Haney Schafer, Ph.D., Marc Stern, J.D., and Eve Tushnet—is listed in the SBL directory or appears to be a biblical scholar by profession. On one level, the absence is astonishing. The project as a whole might be likened to a high school textbook on, say, government, in which no recognition is given to the fields or methods of political science or history, and treatment of issues proceeds by attribution: "conservative Republicans say," "moderate Democrats hold," etc.
Perhaps, therefore, the main question raised by this textbook is why biblical scholarship as an academic discipline is so blatantly ignored in a work that professes to provide an academic approach to the Bible. Certainly, part of the answer lies in the nature of the Bible as a work considered scripture by various faith communities. There is a suspicion of the very attempt to read the Bible for purely academic purposes. Some of that suspicion may well have influenced the conception and composition of this project. But part of the responsibility for the suspicion may also lie with our profession to the extent that we as scholars have tended to isolate ourselves and our discipline, failing to engage the wider readership of the Bible. The projected wide usage of this new textbook, with its attractions and its serious problems, may offer an unprecedented opportunity for biblical scholars to engage the public and exhibit the vitality and appeal of our profession.
Steven L. McKenzie, Rhodes College
Comments on this article? email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Citation: Steven L. McKenzie, " Review of "The Bible and Its Influence"," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Nov 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=465