Saturday, January 17, 2009

Harvard's Bible

Early twentieth century American Christians - neck deep in the fundamentalist/modernist controversy - would have difficulty believing that in the early twenty-first century, the following declaration would be made by a respected professor at Harvard:
[I]n the broad perspective, the fundamentalist - occasional anti-intellectualism and all - has succeeded in preserving much of what is most basic about the Bible, the ancient approach to reading it. By contrast, what now seems naïve is precisely the liberal faith that, despite their abandonment of a good bit of that approach, the Bible can somehow still go on being the Bible.
Kugel is referring to how liberal commentators want to "have their Bible and criticize it too."
Ancient interpretive methods may sometimes appear artificial, but this hardly means that abandoning them guarantees unbiased interpretation. In fact, so much of what liberal theologians and commentators have to say is typically not all that modern scholarship has brought to light, but rather represents an attempt to find a compromise between that scholarship and what the commentators themselves would like the Bible to be. Thus liberal commentators, in the face of all they know about etiological narratives and the like, often prefer to tell their readers about other things [such as] Rahab's proto-feminism.... At times, their interpretations are scarcely less forced than those of ancient midrashists (and usually far less clever).
Kugel doesn't call this phenomenon the ManBearPig, but he might as well have. Granted, I'm sympathetic to some of the interpretations that Kugel calls "Biblical Criticism Lite" (what's wrong with pointing out the glaring differences between the Gligamesh and Genesis flood accounts?), but his point stands tall nonetheless. Attempts to contort the Bible into teaching political correctness are snicker-inducing. Kugel's way to avoid such selective interpretation? "Keep your eyes on the ancient interpreters." For Christians, this means being anchored in patristics. Hopefully the fact that Christological interpretation of the Bible is the answer to the postmodern multiple readings dilemma will not be news to readers of this blog. For more on Kugel, consider Reno, who makes the important point that his book may overplay the incompatibility between faith and critical scholarship. Grace, after all, perfects nature.

Technically, I should add that Kugel is no longer at Harvard. He left his endowed professorship for the much less secure option of living in Jerusalem, being the Orthodox Jew that he is. He wouldn't be the first. Professor Nicholas Constas, a brilliant scholar of Orthodoxy at Harvard Divinity School, also left Harvard to live at Simonopetra Monastery on Mt. Athos.

Kugel and Constas: Men of serious faith who reached the highest level of academic accomplishment only to leave Harvard behind. Maybe they know something we don't.