This is the first post in a series about the roles certain kinds of academics play in Christian life and community in the present United States. I encourage you to share and respond to these posts to help create a kind of conversation I feel is not taking place within and among religious communities. Constructive criticism is always welcome in the comments section.
It’s been months since I’ve led the Theology Circle at St. Lydia’s, my home church. Parenthood will do that to you. But by creating this theology circle, and seeing it develop and take shape over time, I have seen how it has both affected the community of St. Lydia’s and has been affected by that same community (I’ll get to this later). It got me thinking about broader questions about the relationships of the theologian and biblical scholar/critic to religious community. In all of the many non-academic religious communities I have participated in, there has never been an active role for theologian and biblical critics within them. So, I wanted to think about why this is and how to think about this issue during a time of continuous exodus from the pews alongside the rise of the Nones.
At the basic existential level, I must ask “what is a theologian or a biblical critic?” and “what’s the point of having them at all?” Traditionally, a church’s clergy person is the expected and sanctioned authority for such things and the sermon is often the focal point of how God and Scripture is to be interpreted and understood. Clergy is (usually) formally trained in basic biblical studies and theology in religious graduate school, i.e., seminary/divinity school, for this purpose. This training is meant to equip clergy to do their jobs as ministers and to satisfy the immediate and lasting needs of the congregation and community..
Anything beyond this is usually relegated to “Christian education.” This often appears in the form of Sunday school or Bible study or some sort of class led by someone who may or may not have formal (i.e., seminary/div school) training. Is a trained academic a useful asset here in the life of the church? Of course. But in this context they are perceived and treated as educators, and usually ad hoc ones, at that, depending on the topic of study. As important as education is, I argue that it is often considered ancillary in the being and becoming of the church. In other words, the sermon is always most important – and this is moreso in the denominations that prioritize the preaching aspect of the liturgy.
But what many people outside of Academia and “professional Christianity” may not know is that there is a large number of theologians and biblical scholars who are not and have no desire to be ordained, instead preferring to function in more academic capacities. Many of these academics have been trained in secular graduate school programs. And yet they are still active in the life (I say this broadly and loosely) of the Church.
What I am saying is that while theologians and biblical critics are most (if at all) visible in the Academy as teachers and educators, this is not always their primary vocational goal. The academic may have something to teach, but more importantly, the academic has something to think and share with others. Traditionally, this has been book-writing, but publishing and academic politics as they are, this is becoming increasingly challenging (I’ll get to this later, too). Social media, however, has radically transformed and expanded how academics communicate with each other and those outside their traditional circles.
A major challenge, of course, is the age-old wall between the professionally trained academic and the layperson. While most people would like to see a study in The New York Times based on someone’s scholarly credentials, they probably aren’t going to read the study, itself, or seek to become conversant about the nuances of the academic field. In a religious context, especially a Protestant one that puts such a strong emphasis on the authoritative and personal experience and voice of the “priesthood of all (traditionally male) believers,” this can be an issue. It also raises issues of elitism and privilege.
But I propose that the trained theologian and biblical critic each have their own roles to play along with the laity and ordained clergy in the life of one’s particular religious community. For example, instead of teaching or explaining doctrine, the theologian assists the church in creating its contextual theologies that both reflect and develop its identity in its body and parts. Instead of describing a particular construct of an idealized “biblical world,” the biblical critic assists the church in understanding and utilizing the various forms of biblical criticism that have developed over the centuries such that a more robust and diverse understanding of what ancient texts are and how they can be understood and woven into the narrative of the church’s community and individual lives. What is happening here is that the theologian and biblical critic play integral, rather than pedagogical or consultive, roles in the life of the church. This is both a threatening and reassuring act that I’ll expand upon in the future.
My next post will be about my view on the current state of academic religion (spoiler alert: it’s bleak) and the challenges of being a theologian and biblical critic in the early twenty-first century.
I look forward to continuing this dialogue with you online and in the material world.
Charles Barsotti, The New Yorker magazine. Published December 20, 2004.