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The telephone rings. I answer. From the caller's lingo I can tell he is from a local church of liberal leanings. Might I come and speak to his class on the subject of The Da Vinci Code. I decline. I haven't read the book, I protest. But it is the third call in as many weeks. Perhaps I had better read it after all. I try. I am almost stopped short by the Harvard department of "Symbology" (was that in William James Hall?). But I slog on. What finally wears me down is the relentless pounding of an all-too-familiar formula that comes in a variety of cultural packages today. You begin with ideology—reality simplified and adjusted to fit a few easily learned propositions. Then you soup it up with religion. The claims are thus magnified: the struggle becomes eternal; the enemies are evil; at stake is Truth itself. But ideology and religion are not enough. We are, after all, a materialist culture at heart. To make it all real—True—you have to add history. Just a small dose of the cold hard facts, "meticulously researched," will do. With a wink and a nod Dan Brown tells us how it really is. Can't prove it, of course. The evil-doers are too powerful and clever in hiding their tracks. But fiction gives one just enough wiggle room to paint the picture we all know is there. Wink.

Conservatives had their historical fantasy last spring in the theaters. Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ was a great example of the same mesmerizing formula, the other side of this two-headed coin. Remember how he looked Diane Sawyer in the eye and told her, "I know how it really went down." Here, the ideology—anti-Semitism—achieves its transcendent status in the age-old weave of Jewish recalcitrance in the face of God's offer of eternal salvation. But here was Gibson's genius: Aramaic. Just a little pinch of history to make it all really real. "It was just like you were there, seeing the events as they really happened!" a young viewer gushes. "But Mel, you're making this up. These things aren't even in the Bible!" Artistic license. But, "I know how it really went down." Wink.

The Bible has always been fair game in North America's ideological warfare, much of which revolves around religion. The most famous case in point lingers with us still. Eighty years after John Scopes was prosecuted by the fundamentalist Christian, two-time Democratic candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan, and defended by Clarence Darrow, the national village atheist of his day, state legislators still debate the merits of Genesis in the high school science curriculum. In the original Scopes trial it was the biblical scholars, by the way, who traveled from Chicago, Oberlin, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Yale to explain the difference between science and religion. Pity no one took the time then to point out the difference between history and religion. Now, so many years later, when the Jesus Seminar publishes its doubts about the historicity of certain biblical stories, a vast American public assumes without hesitation that it is the Christian religion itself that is being challenged. Sometime in the course of the twentieth century science broke free of religion—or perhaps it was religion that broke free of science. But it never broke free of history. For most people "True" still means historically true. That is why, when ideology goes in search of ultimate validation, it is not enough to reach for religion only. It needs history, too. And so the artist supplies it: bowdlerized, filched, fudged, or just plain made-up—in the murky nether world of historical fiction the distinction between the history and the fiction is easily lost. It matters not. The sympathetic reader knows how it really went down. Can't prove it. Don't need to. Wink.

All of this has taken historians of the Bible a little by surprise. Our discussions have not been attuned to such profane matters. Rather, we've been having our own crisis of faith. Is history even possible? Has human subjectivity posed such a grave obstacle to objectivity that historians should just give up all pretense to disciplined investigation and give in to whatever politics sets our course? While such postmodern doubt seems well advised in moderate doses, if The Da Vinci Code passes for "meticulously researched" history today, perhaps we could set aside our theoretical misgivings for a moment and do what history we can. The culture wars are heating up and sober, fair-minded history may be its first casualty.

Entering the cultural conversation won't be easy. What do we have to work with? Try the History Channel. How many of our colleagues have been caught off guard supplying the talking-head expert testimony to be spliced in between fantastic stories of mummies, lost arks, suppressed texts, and secret societies? Mysteries of the Bible. This is our media outlet in the modern world.

Is this to be the future of biblical scholarship in North America: to add a pinch of historical legitimacy to whatever liberal, conservative, or just plain goofy ideology that comes along with the financial backing to become a film or novel or TV show? Or is the only alternative to this ignoble fate a retreat into a world so technical, so arcane, so well defended with jargon that only we know what we are talking about? This, too, would be ignoble in its own way. The texts we study with such great care still exercise an enormous influence in our culture. The Bible plays a role in our moral discourse, in our social and economic life, in forming our attitudes about the environment, even in the decisions we make about war and peace and the course of global politics. Is there a text in Western culture that exercises more influence for good or ill than the Bible? At this point, the retreat of serious biblical scholarship from public discourse would be disastrous.

The Society in all its variety has much to contribute to our common cultural life. Our members teach people how to read the Bible critically. If you can learn to read the Bible critically, you can learn to read any text critically. Our students come to the text loaded with baggage, most of it related to notions of supreme authority. When we do our best, we get them to become self-critical about their assumptions. Sometimes they set their bags down and begin to read afresh, critically. Many of us start the process with a dose of history—not a pinch of history, but a full dose, so that students learn that when twenty-first century readers look at a first century text they don't always understand intuitively, miraculously, the original author's meaning. Then theory might kick in. Critical discussions follow, about how texts come to mean something, how cultural context matters, how texts are used in community and cultural life, how politics and ideology come to sit alongside the spiritual quest among the various interests that turn to religious texts for power and solace. Our students become critical, more aware readers. At the end of the day they might even be able to look at a film like The Passion of the Christ and not be mesmerized by the ideology and pseudo-historical fiction and realize that just because it looks real, it may not all be True.

This is what the members of our Society do day in and day out, and it is of incalculable value to the world in which we live—or it would be, if more than a handful of seminarians and religion majors knew about it. Most people know more about nuclear physics than they do about the Bible. Nuclear physics is an important subject, but so is the Bible. When the person whose finger rests on the nuclear trigger reads the Bible every night before going to bed, maybe the Bible is even more important. The Society must figure out how to make what we do part of the broadly shared body of cultural knowledge that everyone knows at least a little about. This might include:

  • Producing our own materials to disseminate the basics of biblical scholarship to a broad public.
  • Creating materials for synagogues and churches that still value a critical approach to their scriptural traditions.
  • Advocacy that would press the importance of the critical study of the Bible in all venues of higher education, including our public universities.
  • Exploring ways in which a critical understanding of the Bible might prove useful, even crucial, in various avenues of life.
  • Creating a clearinghouse of bona fide experts who can speak to issues as they come up, so that Time or Newsweek need not always be the arbiter of expertise.

The new strategic vision of the Society makes some provision for this sort of initiative. In my view, this is wise, even if it carries with it the risk of being dragged down into the muck of public discourse. While we fiddle with concerns of scholarly purity, Rome is burning. As various fundamentalists and ideologues of every stripe continue to drag us into a new and deeper Dark Ages, we should not expect anyone to ask, where are the philosophers, the theologians, the historians? They would just as soon we lead quiet lives of irrelevance in pursuit of academic tenure. If we want to make a contribution to a sane future, we will have to rise to the challenge under our own power. The Society needs to play an active role in bringing genuine critical biblical scholarship to the broadest possible audience, so that its members might begin to participate meaningfully in the discussions that will ultimately shape our common cultural life.

Stephen J. Patterson, Eden Theological Seminary,

Citation: Stephen J. Patterson, " Rome is Burning," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2005]. Online:


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