Bible Scholarship, Christian Belief, and Drinking Beer
By Kalinda Rose Stevenson, Ph.D.
What Do Bible Scholars Believe About The Bible?
What is the connection between Bible scholarship and Christian belief? Put another way, do all biblical scholars share the same Christian beliefs about God, the Bible, Jesus, the church, personal piety, and religious practices?
Anyone who thinks for thirty seconds about the extraordinary range of Christian churches and denominations would know in an instant that it is truly ridiculous to think that all Christians agree about anything.
Do Bible Scholars Drink Beer?
And yet, consider the assumptions of the man I talked with at an internet seminar in Orlando, Florida a few years ago.
After the day’s sessions, hotel staff set up a bar in the back of the room, so that attendees could buy drinks and mingle for a while.
I noticed a man I had met at an earlier seminar. Actually, my husband and I had enjoyed a conversation over lunch with him and his wife. I knew that he was a retired history teacher.
He was standing alone, sipping beer from the bottle he had bought at the bar. As someone is not a natural schmoozer at such events, I saw a perfect opportunity to strike up a conversation, and so I walked over to talk with him.
Fairly early in the conversation, I mentioned that the last time I had been in Orlando, I attended the Annual Joint Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion.
He held up his bottle of beer and proclaimed, “I bet they didn’t have any of these at that meeting!” And then he laughed, with a loud guffawing laugh, and took a big swig of his beer.
How To Respond To False Assumptions About The Bible
I was so surprised by his comment that I stood speechless for a few moments, wondering how to respond, as my mind searched through my databank of possibilities.
I thought about challenging his evident assumption that all biblical scholars are teetotalers and that Annual Meetings of professional scholars are equivalent to Sunday School picnics in churches that use grape juice as a substitute for wine in Communion.
I thought about telling him about the two drink tickets every participant receives each year with the name badge as part of the registration process for the Annual Meeting. The tickets are for the joint reception of the two societies, held every year in the biggest ballroom available. Scholars eagerly greet friends and colleagues they have not seen since the last meeting, as they cruise through the crammed ballroom, drinking from the glasses of wine and bottles of beer they hold in their hands. Some even drink fruit punch.
I thought about telling him about my friend Paul, a Jesuit New Testament scholar, who grew up in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Paul and I were teaching assistants together one quarter at the University of California at Davis and we became good friends.
One year, when the Annual Meeting was held in New Orleans, Paul invited me to join him and some other graduate school friends for a night on the town. At first, I thought it might be interesting to go through the French Quarter with someone who had grown up there. But since I am not at all interested in bar hopping, I declined Paul’s invitation.
The next morning, I was especially glad I had made that decision. Paul and I happened to meet in the lobby of the headquarters hotel. I was leaving to attend a session and Paul was just coming in after his night of bar hopping, looking like a man who had visited every bar in the French Quarter.
But the former history teacher had reduced me to a caricature of a teetotaling, blue-nosed moralist. All I said was that I had attended the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion and he had jumped to a conclusion that was so off the mark from reality that I was speechless.
At that moment, I decided that it wasn’t worth my effort to challenge his assumptions. I left him to drink his beer, as he continued to chortle at his cleverness, still utterly ignorant about what it means to be a biblical scholar.
What Do You Have To “Believe” To Study The Bible?
The first thing to know about biblical scholars—beyond the fact that many do drink beer—is that you cannot assume anything at all about what Bible scholars believe or don’t believe about the Bible, God, Jesus, the church, personal piety, and religious practices, because they study the Bible.
You don’t have to “believe” in something to study it. This is why studying terrorism doesn’t make you a terrorist. Studying homophobia doesn’t make you a homophobe. Studying racism doesn’t make you a racist. And studying the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean you “believe” any part it.
In reality, biblical scholars are a large and varied group, including believers and non-believers, from many religious traditions. And most biblical scholars are very clear that a professional meeting is a gathering of scholars and is not a religious function. The meeting is an occasion for “disciplined reflection on religion” not the practice of religion.
The American Academy Of Religion
The American Academy of Religion (AAR) is the larger of the two societies. As you can guess by the name, the range of the AAR is broad. It is concerned with religion in all of its forms and complexities, and includes members from every religious tradition you can imagine. Membership does not imply belief or adherence to any particular religious tradition.
This is its mission statement. The final paragraph of the mission statement is especially relevant.
In a world where religion plays so central a role in social, political, and economic events, as well as in the lives of communities and individuals, there is a critical need for ongoing reflection upon and understanding of religious traditions, issues, questions, and values. The American Academy of Religion’s mission is to promote such reflection through excellence in scholarship and teaching in the field of religion.
As a learned society and professional association of teachers and research scholars, the American Academy of Religion has over 10,000 members who teach in some 1,000 colleges, universities, seminaries, and schools in North America and abroad. The Academy is dedicated to furthering knowledge of religion and religious institutions in all their forms and manifestations. This is accomplished through Academy-wide and regional conferences and meetings, publications, programs, and membership services.
Within a context of free inquiry and critical examination, the Academy welcomes all disciplined reflection on religion — both from within and outside of communities of belief and practice — and seeks to enhance its broad public understanding
The Society Of Biblical Literature
The Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) is narrower in focus than the AAR. While the AAR includes study of sacred books from all religious traditions, the SBL focuses on “critical investigation of the Bible.” “The Bible” includes Hebrew and Christian Bibles, including the Apocrypha which is included as part of the Bible in Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions and excluded in Protestant Bibles.
The Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest international scholarly membership organization in the field of biblical studies. Founded in 1880, the Society has grown to over 8,500 international members including teachers, students, religious leaders and individuals from all walks of life who share a mutual interest in the critical investigation of the Bible.
The Society’s mission to foster biblical scholarship is a simple, comprehensive statement that encompasses the Society’s aspirations. Our vision is to offer members opportunities for mutual support, intellectual growth, and professional development.
As a longtime member of both societies, I am disappointed to report that the two societies recently stopped holding joint meetings together. I am happy to report that joint meetings will resume in the future.
Beer And Fundamentalist Bible Interpretation
And so, back to the story about the man with the bottle of beer and what his comment has to do with “Freedom From Bad Bible Bullies.”
This ignorant remark is a symptom of something far bigger. It demonstrates the impact of Fundamentalist beliefs about the Bible within the larger culture, both within the United States and around the world.
Bad Bible Bullies are most often Fundamentalists and their next-of-kin Evangelicals, who claim that their Bible interpretation is the only authoritative interpretation of the Bible.
Fundamentalism began with a specific set of claims about Bible authority, Christian beliefs, and Bible interpretation. Over time, Fundamentalist claims about the Bible have managed to overpower other Christian beliefs about the Bible, so that “what the Bible says” frequently becomes what Fundamentalists say the Bible says.
The man with the bottle of beer was expressing Fundamentalist beliefs about alcohol, whether he knew it or not.
If the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature ever bans alcohol consumption, based on claims about “what the Bible says about alcohol,” it will no longer be a gathering of Bible scholars, who are engaged in a disciplined study of the Bible, but a convention of believers who share a particular set of Fundamentalist beliefs about Bible authority.
And so, “Freedom from Bad Bible Bullies” involves understanding how Fundamentalists hijacked the Bible, to turn it into something it never was.
There is no more effective method to take back the Bible from Fundamentalists than disciplined Bible scholarship, practiced by people who strive to study the Bible without imposing their own religious beliefs upon it.
For Your Freedom
Kalinda Rose Stevenson, Ph.D.