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Karyn

Hi John,

You said "Not your grandmother’s Genesis! Nor am I expecting my grandmother to buy into this new – and more accurate – way of understanding Genesis anytime soon. But that’s okay. We are but grass, “but the word of the Lord endures forever.”"

Can you discuss how you might pastorally handle this kind of distance between family/congregation members so that each do not think the other has "gone off the deep end"? Not everyone would be able to so easily come to your conclusion that it's "okay" to have such disparate views.

Thank you,
Karyn

JohnFh

Hi Karyn,

I imagine there is more than one way to handle these matters.

As a general rule, from the pulpit, I don't preach in such a way that what I am saying overtly depends on particular conclusions about date, authorship, and genre identification. I was taught in seminary that "higher critical" kind of things belong to the background of preaching, not its content.

In a small group Bible study situation, on the other hand, I go over such matters with care. I try to give everyone permission to reconstruct their understanding of date, authorship, and genre identification questions, but also, permission not to.

Alan Lenzi

"conflict tales" That's funny.

JohnFH

Genesis 4, however, if I were to state my own opinion, *used to be* a conflict tale, that is, a rendition of the archetypal conflict between "the desert and the sown," but isn't one anymore. Now it's about conflicts of an even more fundamental sort.

As Stephen King put it, "Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside of us, and sometimes.....they win."

Alan Lenzi

My point was quite different: the use of "tale" vs. what seems to me the more appropriate label: "myth."

Alan Lenzi

Walton can talk about cultural adaptation of "the epic event" (i.e., the flood). So why can't he talk about the borrowing and adaptation of a myth that has no basis in an actual one-time event in space and time (A, as in ONE, massive flood)? He's tip-toeing and tap-dancing around what most critical scholars have believed for over a century. You practically admit as much about the implications of another of his points when you write that he "does not say so straight out."

. . .

Evangelical scholars, even when they think the evidence requires them to move away from traditional views, are hamstrung or at least quite timid about airing their ideas due to the powers that hold sway over their livelihoods.

It's a shame.

JohnFH

Hi Alan,

The word "myth" can be used, of course, in many ways. If one uses it as broadly as you suggest, then not just "Beauty and the Beast" is a myth, but historical novels like Michener's "The Source" are myths, with the common denominator being that they do not recount one-time events in space and time.

Yet we do not normally call either "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Source" myths. The fact is, "myth," outside of the study of the history of religions, has the almost unshakable connotation of "something untrue." Its usefulness for anything found in the Bible is limited, unless one wants to prejudicate the question of the Bible's truth-claims by means of a terminological pre-emptive strike or, more appropriately, unless one makes it very clear that myth both ancient and modern is the genre used to convey the truths that matter most to us.

It's true, as you say, that Walton's cultural loyalties dictate the way he frames a host of issues. But I find the same to be true in my case, and the same to be true in yours.

I'm not so sure timidity is the right word for the attitude underlying the care I take in criticizing elements of my religious or national tradition. It's about not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Two examples. (1) I believe Gen 1-11 conveys truth of the highest order, but that every bit of it, quite apart from the way in which specific details coincide with realia of various kinds, is myth in Bruce Lincoln's sense: "ideology in narrative form."

Furthermore, I note that an "archetypal" reading of narrative in Gen 1-11 is what traditional exegesis has done all along.

That being the case, I feel that the only people who profoundly misunderstand Gen 1-11 are those who think that because they have determined that Gen 1-11 is myth in Lincoln's sense, they can walk away from the truth-claims the text makes without need for further justification.

It does not follow. That is a cop-out and a short-cut.

I think that's true with myth in general. I was taught to take ancient Mesopotamian myth with the utmost seriousness (by J. J. Finkelstein). I was taught to take Gnostic myths with the utmost seriousness by a theology professor. Only after I have read myth on its own terms, am I in a position to accept or reject it.

This is true of American mythology as well. The belief that "all men are created equal," when the opposite is quite clearly the case, is just one case in point. Yet I still believe, in another sense, that the belief is true - I imagine you do as well.

But my experience is that I have to *point out* to people that "all men are created equal" is not literally true, and that, often enough, they are rattled when I do. Furthermore, if I call it a myth, I become an infidel in their eyes. Finally, the assumption is, because I point out it is not literally true, that I want to sanction privilege of some kind. Quite the opposite is the case.

I hope the analogy is clear. It's not timidity. It's not dishonesty. It's in the nature of responsible discourse within the context of a set of shared loyalties.

Ranger

My belief that "all men are created equal" actually comes from my belief in the deeper truths of Gen. 1. This final comment was very helpful.

Alan Lenzi

"The fact is, "myth," outside of the study of the history of religions, has the almost unshakable connotation of "something untrue." Its usefulness for anything found in the Bible is limited, unless one wants to prejudicate the question of the Bible's truth-claims by means of a terminological pre-emptive strike or, more appropriately, unless one makes it very clear that myth both ancient and modern is the genre used to convey the truths that matter most to us."

I don't agree. Scholarship is always concerned with technical definitions, etc. Why can't we teach people what we mean? Since when does scholarship have to meet the common man's expectation of the denotation of a specific term? We commonly think "marriage" means "one man + one women" in our culture (at least most of the Midwest does), but that doesn't necessarily keep modern anthropologists from arguing about what constitutes a marriage in their ethnographical work among, say, polygamous or polyandrous societies. The problem is about what scholarship is "for". Who do scholars serve? Evangelicals serve the church and thus tow the line in that direction (often with the attitude of "scholarship be damned"--literally). And that loyalty skews their categorizational process and thus the comparative enterprise. This ultimately leads to them stacking the deck in favor of the Bible (or they are forced to so they can keep their jobs).

Thus, from the point of view of history of religions or scholarship in general, NOT admitting that Gen 1-11 is myth by most Evangelicals demonstrates a failure to deal with the comparative evidence in an even-handed manner. They pre-judge the situation and perpetuate a certain privileging of the text that is unacceptable in normal scholarly discourse. Yes we all have our allegiances. But those need not keep us from creating useful cross-cultural categories. The Evangelical failure to use the word myth with reference to the OT (and yet use it with everything non-Biblical) is a continuation of the old 19th Century privileging of Christianity in Religious Studies. Its an attempt to reify divisions and categories along manifestly ideological lines. Just because we all have ideologies and commitments doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't attempt to deal with the evidence even-handedly.

You are subtly using the "we all have presuppositions" card, John, as an excuse for dealing with the evidence in an explicitly ideologically prejudiced manner. Unfortunately, I don't accept that card.

"That being the case, I feel that the only people who profoundly misunderstand Gen 1-11 are those who think that because they have determined that Gen 1-11 is myth in Lincoln's sense, they can walk away from the truth-claims the text makes without need for further justification. . . . I was taught to take ancient Mesopotamian myth with the utmost seriousness (by J. J. Finkelstein)."

Historical study of another culture is serious, yes, and it may inform our own lives and worldview. But it's first goal is to make sense of another time and place within its original context. The evaluation of normative truth-claims is not the first priority in the historical study of religion or mythology. Again, I would point out that we are at an impasse with regard to what biblical scholarship is all about.

I'm not claiming objectivity. But I am asserting that scholars like me, who attempt to remain agnostic or adopt a methodological atheism about the truth-claims of other people's myths, can gain a better historical understanding of them because they have allowed themselves to be deal more freely with the evidence. My ultimate commitments, my presuppositions, are more fruitful for more kinds of evidence than the narrow, particularist assumptions of certain Evangelical scholars. I have a wider range of alternative hypotheses and interpretive trajectories to explore. My paradigm is better than theirs.

Karyn

Alan,

I wholeheartedly agree with you that many disciplines have technical definitions of terminology that popular culture may use in a very different. This is one of the challenges in combating physics misconceptions of students. Their prior experiences with a term (e.g velocity or acceleration) lead them to false conclusions when they do not appreciate the technical and specific meaning of the word being applied within the science community. This does not mean teachers and scientists change the words describing very specific phenomena. Instead, we change the preconception of the student about what each word means. I think we need to likewise reclaim the word "myth" and teach students/laypeople to understand its specific meaning within the context of ANE and biblical studies.

JohnFH

Alan,

You win the argument about the need for precise terminology in scholarship hands down. However, evangelicals and other committed believers have an additional task to undertake: the mediation of that terminology in a confessional context.

Still, what would a precise use of a word like "myth" look like in the study of ancient and modern culture? This is after all quite up for grabs. There is a sense in which the OT in general (not in all specifics) is intensely anti-mythological relative to its coeval "competitors."

It really is a complex subject. Can you think of anyone who has dealt with it well, in the sense of touching all the bases? I can't.

It is true that some careful readers of other people's texts, in particular of ANE texts outside of the Bible that have long been neglected and misunderstood, never get around to discussing the Sache of the texts. Perhaps it is also the case that the specific strengths of your scholarship depend on what you refer to as an "agnostic" stance over against the truth-claims of other people's myths, and the texts you read with your students. That seems to be what you are saying.

But I'm not so sure about that. In previous discussion about the book of Job, for example, I thought a strength of your interpretation was its far-from-agnostic, engaged take on the dilemmas the book confronts. The same goes for your reaction to the "cursing" Psalms.

The fact is, I would rather have a far from unbiased (as if there is such a thing as objectivity in this context) riproaring discussion of the particular take on reality and situations found in an ancient text than a purely philological discussion. How about you?

Alan Lenzi

Defining "myth" is complex and there are a number of definitions out there, with some scholars wanting to abandon the term altogether (e.g., Ivan Strenski). I admit that. But present diversity doesn't mean there is no possibility for consensus, eventually.

I agree that Evangelical scholars also mediate knowledge to a community. The problem is that they often do so in ways that seem to undercut the academic community. For example, they want both to be in the SBL while also telling their parishioners that the SBL is full of a bunch of Liberals or godless unbelievers. They want academic credibility/ standing AND religious antithesis. I am convinced that this ambivalence often has a very strong affect on Evangelical biblical scholarship. For example, Evangelicals may admit sources in the Pentateuch and then explain them as Moses' sources.

About my so-called non-agnostic readings: In both examples you refer to I've bracketed out the truth-claims in order to make hermeneutical observations. I don't deny the strength of the truth-claims on those who make them. In fact, I take the claims seriously. On the other hand, I don't allow the truth-claims to steer my interpretation because I look at both Job and imprecatory Psalms in terms of human practice among human community. I needn't accept the truth-claims personally to see how such work themselves out among humans. But sometimes, yes, I allow myself to make a normative judgment, especially on my blog. But that's not something I normally do in my published scholarship.

I'm up for riproaring discussions about interpretations of texts. But I think scholars ought to be very self-conscious about their assumptions and goals, especially when something so powerful as religious identity is involved/at stake.

JohnFH

Thanks, Alan, for the conversation. You have given readers, especially Evangelical ones, a lot to think about.

I point out for the sake of others that I, too, am an evangelical, but of the sort that grew up in a liberal, pietist context. In Sunday school, I was taught about J, and thought J was really cool. [Von Rad's J, for the record.]

Only later did I undergo a dramatic conversion experience in typical evangelical fashion. But I never got the memo that I was supposed to cleanse my imagination of J.

To this day, I tend to look at these questions with the stubbornly simplistic attitude of a Forrest Gump, rather than as cannon fodder for sociopolitical debates between Liberals and anti-Liberals, debates to which I am hostile, since I think of both liberalism and conservatism as gifts that keep on giving, and poison which keeps on poisoning.

Attack liberalism onesidedly enough, and I will end up attacking you. Attack conservatism onesidedly enough, and I will end up attacking you. If you are a polarized thinker, in other words, I may end up sparring with you.

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    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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    Copyright © 2005 by John F Hobbins.