A view from the Chasm: Four changes biblical scholars need to make if they wish to positively engage faith communities.

Dr. Eric M. Meyers in an article published in the March/April issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (published online here) has argued that an “impenetrable divide” exists between academic biblical and archaeological studies and lay/pastoral engagement with the same material.

As someone who attempts to stand in the chasm, attempting to find points of application and interdependence between academic study of the ancient near-east and statements of faith in the broader public, I can certainly recognize the data gap between the two groups. But the question is not whether or not a gap exists, the primary question should be what causes the chasm and how can it best be bridged.

Jumping the Gaps (Gates) in the Canaanite walls surrounding the ancient city of Arad

When walking the Canaanite walls of Ancient Arad you occasionally have to jump the gaps created by the slim gates.

For Dr. Meyers the chasm is created when the public “stubbornly refuses” to “turn to real experts for advice.”  I would like to contend that the chasm is, in fact, created by academia itself.

Academia is notorious for looking down on the public, expecting them to climb the ivory tower without considering its own failure to be a gracious and inviting host once the public gets there.

Why would lay persons or the pastorate engage with or attend events put on by an academic community where individuals within the community actively and openly denigrate colleagues who profess statements of faith? The recent conference on Exodus, put on by UCSD’s Calit2 and heavily promoted by BAR, is a perfect example. One only needs to listen to a few of the Q&A sessions that followed some of the presentations to know what I am talking about.

[Tweet “Are communities running away from academia or has academia distanced itself from faith communities?”]

Dr. Meyers seems to indicate that media or faith communities need to change in order for the issue to be resolved but as with most marital problems, you can’t expect the other person to change without being willing to change yourself first.  I would suggest that the greater community of Biblical Scholars engage in self-reflection and consider changing themselves in four ways if the wish to positively engage media and faith communities.

1. Questioning motives and agendas have no place in the evaluation of a colleague’s research.

Research must stand on its own merit. If the data supports the conclusion – fine. If not, then that is where the argument lies. When academics begin to play armchair psychologist in order to evaluate motives rather than the argument itself, when people begin to guess which particular “failure of logic” (read delusion) this particular researcher suffered from, then they begin to isolate themselves from entire groups of people who weren’t involved in the research in the first place.

2. Proactively engage faith communities.

By this I don’t mean that academics request that lay persons purchase their “popular book” so that they can be educated and corrected in their thinking. Instead, suggest sessions at conferences and annual meetings which highlight engagement with faith communities and research application. Promote and invite pastors who are actively engaging academic research in the vary ways Meyers assumes almost never happens within the faith communities.

 3. Promote Scholars who successfully engage faith communities while maintaining high standards of scholarship.

Let’s face it “Biblical Archaeology” has been considered a dirty phrase among some of the Near-Eastern Languages and Civilizations crowd for a long time. Everyone is willing to sensationalize their monograph by including “biblical” in its title in hopes of bridging the gap; few are willing to still call themselves “Biblical Archaeologists” when they are looking for the most sought after NELC jobs. There is no shortage of scholars who’s professions of faith have meant that there is little to no chance of them receiving certain academic appointments.



 4. Become part of a faith community yourself.

Drink the cool-aid — you might like it. The best and most effective way for scholars to engage faith communities is to be part of them. Scholars should faithfully and cheerfully give of their time and knowledge to the betterment of the community. In building individual relationships, you might earn the right to encourage change and challenge deficiencies

Ultimately, I have found that faith communities are hungry for the meat, the research that could enrich and enliven their spiritual and personal lives.  There is a growing number of churches that are not only willing to invite experts to speak to their community, but they eagerly invest in resources which focus on biblical backgrounds. Unfortunately, some of the vultures and hyenas surrounding the carcass of research have scared many lay-people away, leading faith communities to consume less than preferred cuts of meat.

Join the discussion below: What do you believe is the cause of the chasm between lay/pastoral studies and academic studies of the bible and Archaeology?

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  • lynnbaber

    Good article. The divide exists when there is “my truth” and “your truth” rather than THE truth. Research is by definition a finding based upon statistical probability or subjective interpretation of something observed. What an object is may be objectively described, but anything further is based on world-view and philosophy. A real object may be found, but the history, creation, intent, and meaning of it’s existence is an opinion based on what version of “truth” one espouses.

    Academia is similar to the political class; they serve the body. Scholars write and direct their work toward academics and politicians speak and vote with an eye toward others of the political power class. There are exceptions to that general rule, but they are rare. Faith-based leadership focus on those in the faith-based audience. Whenever the goals of two groups are not the same there will be always be places of separation. Thus the chasm widens.

    • Lynn, thanks so much for your contribution. I think you are right, the chasm can be very wide at times! I think that when agendas are set aside, when our preconceptions of the other side are jettisoned, then, even when goals are varied, cooperative application can be fruitful.

      If faith communities want to engage Academia then we need to get past some of the condescending speech that takes place there, and do our research to the best of our ability. Likewise, academics have to stop assuming an agenda on the part of faith communities, and encourage them to participate in the conversation. Isn’t that what academia was supposed to support – Open dialogue?

  • Great article. I’ve certainly experienced ‘the gap’. I’ve been asked by church leaders “Why should I care about biblical context? All I need is to study the text of the Bible.” That response caught me by surprise the first time. I’m glad you’re working to bridge the gap as a faith-filled Christian leader.

    • Thanks so much Peter! On one front we have to persuade the church to engage scholarship and on a second we have to persuade scholarship to engage the church.

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