QUESTION: The one thing that I do not understand about you is that you have stated you have lost your faith. That being said, how do you continue to work in your field? Have you ever wanted to redirect your academic career to study other subjects?
RESPONSE: I get this question a lot. On one level I understand it: if I don’t believe in the Bible, why would I dedicate my life to studying it, researching about it, writing about it, and teaching about it? From the perspective of someone who has strong feelings about the Bible – for example, as a believer who holds that the Bible is the word of God or as an atheist who thinks the Bible is the root of all kinds of evil – it may seem like a mystery that someone in my boat would be interested in spending such an enormous amount of time and effort in studying it. Or from the perspective of someone who is completely apathetic about the Bible: why would you bother?
But from another perspective the question always puzzles me.
That’s because of the context within which I live, move, and have my being: the research university. If I were teaching at a seminary or divinity school, training future ministers, the question would make sense: then I’d be teaching students whose ministry was in some sense rooted in the biblical traditions as normative texts for what to believe and how to behave. If I were an agnostic in that context (there are some!) then it would be a bit strange (but not impossible to imagine; but that’s another discussion). But I’m not in that context. I’m not engaged in this kind of work in a church, or a Christian education program, or a believing community of any kind, or a seminary or divinity school. I engage in it in a secular research university.
The context makes all the difference. At a tier-one university, established scholars in all sorts of fields engage in teaching, research, and writing – in the hard sciences (as opposed to the easy ones, I suppose), the social sciences, and the arts and humanities. They engage in this work because the topics they choose to work on are generally recognized, by people who know about such things, as being historically, culturally, politically, economically, socially, or scientifically important. In this context, people teach and research all *sorts* of things they don’t “believe” in.
My wife is an expert, among many other things, in Chaucer. She doesn’t “believe” in Chaucer, although she loves the texts and finds them personally important. There are professors in the university who teach the history of communism; most of them are not communists. Others teach the philosophy of Plato; they are not necessarily Platonists. Others teach the history of 20th century Germany; they aren’t Nazis. Others teach criminology; they aren’t necessary mass murderers.
I teach religious studies. It doesn’t mean I’m religious. And there’s no reason that should be any weirder than the fact that a professor of Greek classics is not a pagan. Even within Religious Studies it is widely the case that experts of one field or another do not practice the religion. That’s because we do not teach religion in the sense that we are trying to convince people that the religion is “true” or that it ought to be “adopted.” We’re not interested in converting people, but in teaching them. And so a scholar of Buddhism is not necessarily Buddhist (the ones I know aren’t); a scholar of American fundamentalism is not necessarily an American fundamentalist (one of my colleagues in that field at UNC is an Israeli Jew); a scholar of the history of Catholicism is not necessarily Roman Catholic (another colleague of mine in that field is, again, somewhat oddly, another Israeli Jew); scholars of Islam are not necessarily Muslim (neither of my colleagues in that field are); etc etc.
So too with biblical studies. Scholars of the Bible are not necessarily believers in the Bible. Now, I have to admit, that historically, most biblical scholars in America have been (and still are) practicing Christians. Some few New Testament scholars are practicing Jews. And some few – like me – are none of the above. I think the reason so many scholars in this particular field have a personal attachment to it has to do with the nature of our society: people who really get into the Bible when they’re young usually get into it for personal religious, rather than academic, reasons. That was certainly the case for me. I didn’t become an agnostic until long after I had studied and revered the Bible as a hard-core Christian. But once I became an agnostic I didn’t lose my interest in the Bible. It’s just that the reasons for my interest radically shifted – shifted to what the reasons would have been had I been an agnostic in college and took a class on the Bible and gotten hooked then.
The reasons for being interested in studying the Bible are pretty much the same as the reasons for being interested in studying Chaucer, or Plato, or Latin classics, or modern German history, or medieval Japan, or most anything else. These are all important topics – historically, culturally, socially, politically, and so on – and are, in themselves, endlessly fascinating.
In our world, the Bible is especially important and interesting. When it comes to importance, there’s no other book that can come *close* to the Bible for its influence on Western civilization in virtually all of its aspects. How can someone interested in books not be interested in the Bible? Moreover, far and away the most important and influential institution in the history of the West is the Christian church. Who shouldn’t be interested in how it all started? And no figure in history is more important and influential than Jesus of Nazareth. Who shouldn’t want to know everything possible about him and the religion built on him?
And so back to the question: I understand how, on one level, it may seem strange that someone who did not believe in the Bible would devote his life to researching and teaching the Bible; but on another level, it doesn’t seem strange at all. It is a bona fide academic subject. I refuse to yield the field of biblical studies to fundamentalists who want to thump the Bible. The field belongs just as much – if not more — to secular historians and literary scholars who are intent on coming to an educated understanding of this most important book and its historical and literary significance.