Conference Report: “The Bible and the American Future”
What will the future of America look like? Will it involve a tumultuous period of war, followed by a kingdom of peace for the surviving righteous? Or will everyone come together to improve our lot, resulting in a coexistence defined by justice? What role(s) has the Bible played in formulating these conceptions of our American future, and how does/can it continue to set the tone for these imaginings? These were the basic questions behind an innovative conference held on 18-20 October in Lincoln, Nebraska. Sponsored and hosted by St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, “The Bible and the American Future” was the result of the longstanding interest of St. Mark’s Theologian-in-Residence, Robert Jewett. Dr. Jewett was kind enough to answer a few questions over lunch at the conference:
DC: [Dan Clanton]: This is a conference on the Bible and the American Future. Why this topic? Why now? I know that your professional interest stems from many years of inquiry into the issue of religious nationalism, most recently found in your 2008 book Mission and Menace: Four Centuries of American Religious Zeal. But, what is it about the Bible in our current climate that speaks to people as they consider the future?
RJ: [Robert Jowett]: I think the choice of a new administration this past year marked a turn on the part of the American public away from a violent, millennial conception of the American future toward a more realistic, more constitutionally oriented view. I think we made a decision politically, but the Church hasn’t really clarified the foundations of this choice or debated through the issues very completely. I’ve been working on this topic since the 1970s because of my concern about the crusading impulses that surfaced in the Vietnam War, which we really have not overcome and which we are simply replicating again in the Iraq War and in a way also in Afghanistan. There’s a need, I think, to revisit the questions of which kind of future vision we really want? What are the biblical foundations for that vision? What are the bases for the choices we’re making? I think many forms of the religious communities in the United States are reluctant to choose between biblical alternatives, but in this case I think we really did choose an alternative, and I think we need to be conscious of why, and what its implications are.
I wanted a conference in which all sides were heard, and I’ve invited people who are critical of my point of view. In each of our sessions, the respondents were picked intentionally because we assumed they’d be on the other side of the fence from the presenter, so that a polite, sharp dialogue could emerge, stimulating us to think through these issues in a fresh way. And St. Mark’s Church responded to this idea. Several alternative ideas were put forward when the agreement was made that I would come here as Theologian-in-Residence, but they picked this theme as the one that was somehow most relevant. And this choice was made a year ago. So maybe that was fortuitous, that the conference is happening when the country is thinking through some of these policy decisions in a fundamental way.
DC: That leads to a question that’s been posed by a few presenters thus far—and one that I assume will be returned to—that is, that our country seems embroiled in a rather rancorous debate over our future as a nation and what that will consist of. Can you speak as to how you see the Bible as a resource in resolving these conflicts or as a key factor in these arguments?
RJ: Well, I think in fact the variety of voices we have in the Bible encourages a community of discourse and legitimate public debate in which different opinions are respected and heard. That is, I think, the very nature of our biblical material. After all, American civil religion is a biblical construct, and both sides—both the crusading side and the constitutional side—have biblical roots. But the fact that the Bible has a variety of voices in respectful dialogue with each other legitimates a culture of constant debate and discussion, which is healthy.
Now, I think we’ve drifted into an abusive form of discourse in the last twenty or thirty years, in which a kind of holy war in politics has occurred. I don’t think that position is really sustained by the whole Bible. There are portions of the Bible that are polemical and prejudicial. One thinks of the Pastoral Epistles, one thinks of Jude, one thinks of some of the Old Testament prophets, one thinks of the book of Revelation—which is going to annihilate everyone who disagrees with the author. There are violent portions that don’t want to hear discourse and don’t want to talk with the other side, but that’s not the only voice, fortunately.
DC: Your comments echo one of the questions I’ve tried to raise with my students recently in my class on Paul. We’ve been reading Krister Stendahl’s little book on Romans called Final Account.In that work, he’s very critical of the idea that he calls universalism, that is, our understanding of reality is correct, and therefore should be shared by everyone else. And Stendahl sees that idea as the beginnings of imperialism. As a Jewish scholar, when I talk with my students about that idea of universalism, the discussion takes on a different tone, especially when we examine the question of what happens to those who don’t agree with an “in-group” understanding. When we talk about the role of the Bible in the American future, and especially the apocalyptic understanding, what role do you see universalism playing in that? I’m especially thinking here of the popular Christian understanding of what will happen when Jesus returns.
RJ: The universalist impulse has always been theocratic. It assumes that there’s only one truth, that God is behind that truth, and that truth is with us, whichever side I happen to be on. The American experience with the biblical tradition was that theocracy was tried and found to be inappropriate. That’s why it’s so important to remember why the majority of Americans turned away from theocracy, even though established churches and theocracy were the norm. The fact is that that was perceived as abusive to conscience, and from the time of Roger Williams on you get a countercultural tradition emerging, which the churches that had suffered from this most advocated, particularly the Evangelicals that came out the Great Awakening. The Baptists and the Presbyterians, especially the former, being forced to pay church taxes to a church they didn’t approve of, perceived that as a violation of conscience. What we call the separation of Church and State is really the result of the discovery, over a long period of time, of violations of conscience on the part of religious majorities who believed that truth was universal and that they had it. And what emerged out of this is a democratic conversation between churches and synagogues. That’s why I think it’s so important in thinking about how the Constitution preserves that to think of that Constitutional celebration in Philadelphia on 4 July 1788, when the clergymen of all different denominations—Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, Calvinist, Congregationalist, with a rabbi—are marching down the street in the parade, arm in arm, as friends. That was a tremendous innovation. Think of the holy wars that had been fought among these groups in Europe, and still were being fought at the very time this occurred, the Jews being persecuted for their faith in Europe, over and over again.
I think in a sense the universalist impulse gets transformed, therefore, out of this American experience, so that what becomes universally relevant is a social system that allows conversation instead of war, that allows legitimate dispute. What are agreed upon are these rules of discourse, which we now have violated. In New England, it was said, “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” That’s the fundamental principle of hearing each voice and legitimating each voice, so that universalism gets a new definition here. That is, we agree that the truth is somewhat beyond us all, we’re all limited, sin is omnipresent; therefore, too much power in anybody’s hands, including ours, is dangerous. We agree to that, and we agree to the discourse that comes out of that as legitimate.
DC: It strikes me that that acceptance of divergent opinions is, in a way, far more biblical than this dominant, overarching view of truth, capital T.
RJ: That certainly is true. Why else would you have all these prophets next to each other who don’t agree with each other? Why else would you have four Gospels, each with a different view of Jesus? Why else would we have the variety of discourse in the Jewish community, in which the Talmud is created, with differing voices and authorities on each topic, and no final answer? It encourages a community, a civilization of discourse, of argument, of dispute, healthy dispute. Because the truth in fact is beyond us individually, we need to go through trial and error, and we need to legitimate the debate.
DC: And yet every time I speak to my students on the very first day of either my Hebrew Bible or New Testament class and tell them they shouldn’t expect any sort of overarching message or homogeneity among this literature because we do have different points of view, they look somehow disappointed. So, I think there’s something attractive in this idea that there’s this One Truth, and if we can tap into it, then everything will make sense and our anxiety will be lessened somehow.
RJ: Sure, as long as that truth is our Truth, my Truth, my group. But if I have to admit that your group is also legitimate, then I have to qualify my claim a little bit and say, “What we feel is true we’re willing to argue for. We confess that this is our experience, and we hold this to be true. But we’re willing to dialogue with you and respect you, even though you define this truth differently that we do.” This dispute, this argument, is humanizing. It creates a civilization of mutual respect. That we’ve fallen away from that, toward a holy war mentality in recent decades in the United States, is really a sign that we need to recover some of these biblical roots of this multifaceted discourse.
The contributions of the presenters, who included some of the most influential and widely regarded scholars working today, furthered the multifaceted discourse Jewett spoke of. In addition to Jewett, presenters included Darrell Bock, Walter Brueggemann, John Dominic Crossan, Terence Fretheim (via phone from Hong Kong), Richard Horsley, Jacqueline Lapsley, Kathleen O’Connor, Sandra Richter, J.J.M. Roberts, Kenneth Vaux, and Ben Witherington III. Obviously it was a large and costly undertaking to invite scholars of this caliber, and they did not disappoint. Neither did the respondents, all local church leaders chosen with the convictions that (a) the academy’s work should be accessible to and impact communities of faith, and (b) the academy and these communities should converse regularly, deeply, and respectfully. Toward this end, question cards were collected following the presenters’ speeches, so that moderators could put questions directly to the presenters.
This insistence on dialogue, however, was not the most innovative aspect of the conference, even though it certainly is not the usual fare at conferences. In my opinion, the real innovation here was the fact that a book containing the presenters’ papers—complete with endnotes, a bibliography, and an index—was available for purchase prior to the start of the conference. This allowed those of us in the audience to follow along with scholars as they read either excerpts from or their entire chapters, as well as to listen to embellishments and explanations along the way. This engendered a deeper engagement with the arguments being presented, as it permitted hearers to access the complete paper as it was being delivered. I asked Jewett about the pragmatics of such an arrangement:
DC: I’d also like to ask you about the pragmatics of putting a conference like this together because not only do you have presenters and respondents with divergent viewpoints, but this is also the first conference that I’ve ever been to where you’re able to purchase a real book containing the full text of the papers being presented before the conference begins, so that you can follow along as the papers are being read and become more engaged with the speakers in that regard. Can you talk about the mechanics of preparing that, and how you were able to have the book published prior to the conference?
RJ: First of all, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church agreed to support this conference. We set the deadline for the articles in the book early enough that we could accommodate it if a publisher had an instant publication method, which Wipf and Stock does. I’ve worked with other publishers, including one publisher who’d done an instant publication with me in the past, and they said it would take them at least six months. I’ve been involved with collections of essays, as you have, and the lag time is usually nine months to a year after the last piece is in. The Church put up the money for a qualified local editor who helped us do the copyediting up front, and Wipf and Stock did copyediting at the end as well. We worked intensively here at the Church. One of our pastors, John Lacey, checked all the biblical references and found some mistakes, for example, in almost every article by the experts.
DC: Is it wrong that that makes me feel better?
RJ: [Laughs] Well, without Wipf and Stock it would’ve been impossible, without our Church support it would’ve been impossible. The book actually appeared in Lincoln about three and half weeks after the last article was turned in. We had to regularize the endnotes, and then K.C. Hanson, the chief editor at Wipf and Stock—one of the most distinguished editors in the United States in theology—did the index for us. That a book like this would have an index absolutely boggled my mind, but he had a computerized method of doing it and he did the index in a day or so after the last page proofs were sent in. So, this book not only has a comprehensive bibliography that is consistent with all the details present, but also an index.
DC: Will you also be making the responses available online in some form?
RJ: The entire conference is being taped, and we’re creating a DVD that will have the entire discussion and that will be for sale about a month after the conference.
DC: That’s a pretty quick turnaround, too.
RJ: Yes, we have professional cameramen doing this who are associated with the Church. Some people have suggested we incorporate the responses into a second edition of the book, but I don’t think that’s really feasible. Some of the responses have been of very high quality, though. Our conviction—and the Church shared this—is that truth is complex, and we need to honor both sides. So, we invited liberals to respond to conservatives’ papers, and vice versa. We tried to find the right people who would be respectful, but critical, so that the issues are legitimated and something that we can discuss.
Obviously, not every faith community has the resources available at St. Mark’s, but the promotion of closer and respectful dialogue between scholars of religion and religious communities of believers is a laudable goal, and one that is increasingly necessary as we consider the possible role(s) the Bible will play in the future of America.
 For more specific information, see http://www.bibleandtheamericanfuture.com/.
 Published by Fortress Press.
 These options are delineated in Jewett’s article, “Between Armageddon and the World Court: Reflections on the American Prospect,” in The Bible and the American Future (ed. Robert Jewett, with Wayne L. Alloway, Jr. and John G. Lacey; Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 48-71.
 Stendahl, Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995).
 See Stendahl, Final Account, 43.
 See n. 3 for a full citation of the book.
 See http://wipfandstock.com/. Jim Tedrick, the Managing Editor at Wipf and Stock, related to me that preparing this book was unusual in the sense that the time frame was so short, i.e., about three weeks. According to Tedrick, usually the turnaround on a book like this would be three to four months.