What Kind of Biblical Scholar Am I?

This guest post is by Karen R. Keen and first appeared on her blog Interpreting Scripture.

After several years of graduate and postgraduate work in biblical studies, I am beginning to form an identity as a biblical scholar. When I first set out on this scholarly adventure several years ago, I jumped in with excited anticipation not realizing the ways the academy would force me to wrestle with complexities I hadn’t known existed. The academy has both invigorated and frustrated me. It has provoked, inspired, prodded, challenged, and even taunted. I love being in a world of constant learning and discovery. Yet, I am mindful of how the academy not only desires to teach me, but also to shape me.  There are competing bids for worldviews, methodologies, and research objectives. Without proper care,  professional identity can end up a product of the “academic machine” rather than wise reflection on vocation. My purpose in writing this post is put “legs” to my own identity by publicly clarifying and articulating how I understand my work. I also hope by sharing my own process to encourage other academics to reflect on what kind of scholar they are and why. 

1. I am a Christian biblical scholar. Being a Christian is not merely adherence to ideology; it’s a way of life. It is how I live, move, and have my being in the world. As a result, the notion of leaving my Christian faith at the door of the classroom is nonsensical. The idealization of absolute objectivity is an illusion. Everyone brings his or her own perspective to teaching and research. The problem is not with biases–for everyone has them–but rather failure to recognize and acknowledge one’s biases. The fact that I am a Christian scholar is a benefit, not a liability. The Old and New Testaments are authoritative for millions of people around the world. Helping students (of any background) to grasp why these texts are sacred to Christians can help them better understand this large demographic, not to mention the significant ways history and culture have been affected by various Christian readings. Put another way, if I wanted to learn more about Islam and its impact, I would rather learn from a Muslim who has a personal knowledge and practice of the Qur’an than an outsider who is more likely to miss important nuances.

2. I am a historical-critical, literary, and theological biblical scholar. After experimenting with various methodologies, I have settled on the plain Jane three-prong approach: historical-critical, literary, and theological. This means I seek to discover the historical-cultural context of Scripture, apply a close reading of the literary themes and devices, and discern the theological intent (both Israelite and in Jewish and Christian reception history). Other methodologies that involve applying psychological or philosophical theories have not been a good fit for me (e.g. I am not interested in employing Freudian readings of the text etc.)  That does not mean I think my choice in methodology is the only way to study the text. Biblical scholars come from a variety of backgrounds and interests. Nor does it mean that I ignore or fail to learn important insights from those who might apply methods that I don’t use personally.

Anyone navigating the world of biblical scholarship immediately encounters a variety of methodologies. I’ve learned that becoming a good scholar is discerning what approach fits one’s calling. In certain parts of the academy there can be pressure to become a methodological “mini-me” of so-and-so. And there is no shortage of elitist judgment about what methodology is the correct one.  It takes reflection and courage to consider various methods, their outcomes, and intentionally discard ones that don’t fit one’s own identity as a scholar.

Similarly, a good scholar utilizes methodology to produce meaningful and not contrived work. That might seem like common sense. However, the pressure to produce original research can lead to innovation for the sake of a CV rather than for the sake of meaningful contribution. Anyone who has attended SBL or other scholarly conferences has experienced this reality. Methodologies can be like fashion fads that come and go. Most scholars will produce contrived work at some time or another. This is a normal part of the learning and experimental process, particularly for graduate students. But eventually, a good scholar should be able to discern whether or not a project is truly a meaningful endeavor or merely a contrived effort.

3. I am an Ignatian biblical scholar. I enjoy intellectual entertainment as much as the next geek, but that alone is not enough. The chief question that drives my scholarly pursuit is: “So what?” What difference does this research or teaching make? I have found Ignatian pedagogy to capture the heart of my vocation as a biblical scholar. Taken from the principles of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556 C.E.), Ignatian pedagogy understands the goal of teaching and learning to be transformation of the person. Rather than viewing students as receptacles for an information dump, learning is an experiential process involving reflection, action, and evaluation. Knowledge is not merely for the sake of collecting ideas in one’s head, but for the purpose of positive impact. The learning process involves examining one’s attitudes, emotions, and beliefs, discerning the significance of the material being learned, and seeking to tangibly act on the basis of new knowledge in a way that makes a positive difference in the world.

The field of biblical scholarship is fascinating, but at the end of the day I care about the usefulness of what I am learning and teaching. This influences the kinds of questions and research I engage in. As an anecdote: I recall early on in my graduate studies seeking to find meaning in a class that focused on historical-criticism at a time when I was primarily accustomed to theological readings. I chose the topic of temple prostitution in antiquity for research, not because I had a particular interest in the topic per se, but because I knew it would meet the professor’s expectations. I wasn’t sure how this information had any relevance or significance. It wasn’t until I realized that the debate on temple prostitution plays a role in the modern church’s debate on same-sex unions that I understood the importance of this kind of historical study. I normally looked for meaning in theological interpretations; it took several semesters before I discovered the questions I wanted to ask of historical-critical research. But, when I did, historical-criticism opened up a whole new world of meaning.

As a Christian and Ignatian scholar who applies historical-critical, literary, and theological methodologies to the biblical text, my passion is to bridge the gap between the academy and the church. At times, I have found this difficult to pursue because of the tension that can exist between these entities. Even as a graduate student at Christian institutions I sometimes felt pressured to minimize the influence of my faith in the name of “objectivity.” On the other hand, I have faced the skepticism of those in the church who have questioned the usefulness of formal biblical scholarship for the Christian life. To oversimplify, the academy views faith as naive and irrelevant; the church views the academy as arrogant and inane. But, in truth, both have something crucial to offer the other.

 Scholars such as Dr. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza have argued that academics “cannot remain in the ivory tower ‘of privileged aloofness.'”; scholars have a responsibility to consider how their research has public consequences. More recently, Dr. Nicola Denzey Lewis wrote: “[A]cademia is itself a bubble-world, full of people who talk only to people like them, or like us. The worst of us . . . are those who think that this isolation is absolutely fine . . . I fear that unless academics find some way of helping non-academics to make meaning in one small part of their lives, we will be perceived as useless old albatrosses” (see also “Selling Without Selling Out“). I second these calls for making scholarship accessible and attending to the “so what?” of research and teaching. In particular, I hope to convey how Scripture has significance for our present day and to engage with the challenging questions that both Christians and non-Christians ask about God, religion, and the Bible. Some of the questions that currently interest me include:

  • How do the ancient Near Eastern and Hellenistic contexts of the Bible shed light on how we understand the process of scriptural revelation/inspiration? How has/does God speak to human beings?
  • What can we learn about the nature of God from Scripture in light of limitations of human language?
  • In what ways is the Bible used in contemporary debates?
  • How do various biblical interpretations influence people’s attitudes, beliefs, and actions?
  • What are the social and political impacts of biblical interpretations?
  • What do we learn about best hermeneutical practices by how different methodologies throughout history have sustained Christian and Jewish faith communities?
  • How does historical-critical study help us to better understand biblical theology?
  • What does it mean for Christian and Jewish communities to have sacred texts that include difficult or troubling passages (e.g. violence etc)?
  • What is the relationship between biblical interpretation and contemporary ethical appropriations?
  • What ways of teaching and learning the scriptures enhance personal transformation? What ways hinder it?

In essence, what it means for me to be a biblical scholar is to engage significant life questions that go beyond analyzing fossils. Regardless of what one believes about the nature of the biblical texts, the fact remains that they have enduring meaning and authority in the lives of millions of people. I hope that in helping others to explore and understand these texts within historical context, history of interpretation, and contemporary usage that this knowledge will lead to positive personal transformation and tangible action in our world today.


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1 Response to What Kind of Biblical Scholar Am I?

  1. Pingback: Recommended Reading: May 23-29 | Pursuing Veritas

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