When I first entered graduate school to study theology, I assumed the Scriptures were important. So I took a whole slew of graduate courses in Biblical studies, where I was introduced to the complicated twists and turns of modern historical-critical Biblical scholarship.
I’d been introduced to some of this when I was an undergraduate, but I was embarrassed to discover upon my arrival in graduate school that several of the major theories I had committed to memory to pass my college final had already been overthrown by more recent theories.
Thus although my undergraduate Protestant professor had claimed that Jesus’s comment to Peter, “You are Peter [Petros], and upon this rock [petra] I will build my church,” did not support the authority of the Roman Catholic pope, my Catholic graduate school professor denied it had been said at all. And he assured all the seminarians and graduate students that, “Peter was never in Rome, and was certainly not the ‘first pope.’” All just a later invention.
So too, most of the stories reported about Jesus were said to be invented by various communities: the “Markan” community, the “Matthean” community, and/or the “Johannine community,” sometimes referred to as “The Community of the Beloved Disciple” in order to distinguish the “Beloved Disciple” from the apostle John, who was, it seemed, someone else.
No one seemed to know what had happened to the famous apostle John other than that he certainly hadn’t written a Gospel, any of the letters ascribed to him, or the Book of Revelation. He just faded away, I guess. The “Beloved Disciple,” by contrast, had done amazing things; it’s just that the community united around him and devoted to his memory oddly never seems to have thought it important to record his actual name.
There was an odd paradox about our Old Testament professor, who was known for taking church tour groups to the Holy Land. He was the sort of Biblical scholar who had elaborate textual theories arguing that the “Exodus event” never involved crossing the Red Sea; that Abraham never really existed; and that the Ten Commandments originally had nothing to do with events at Mt. Sinai.
His disposition to deny the historical veracity of nearly every biblical story prompted my friend Kenneth Covington to ask one day whether he advertised these tours this way: “Come see where Moses didn’t cross the Red Sea; where Jesus didn’t multiply the loaves and fishes; didn’t walk on the water; and didn’t rise from the dead”?
It’s hard to imagine who would go. The only reason people would pay for such an expensive trip is because of their belief that these events happened. For this reason, we have to describe the professor’s practice, both in offering such tours and in teaching the Scriptures the way he did, as “parasitic” on Christian faith.
Think about it: If this professor had actually convinced any of the people on these trips that the things they believed had happened in the Holy Land had not happened, then it’s hard to imagine them ever going back. Why would they? Not only did nothing they thought happened there actually happen, there are other, more pleasant places to spend one’s time: Paris, Vienna, the Grand Caymans.
So too, people usually take classes on the Bible because they believe in its authority as the inspired word of God. If a teacher accepts such students, knowing that this faith is the reason for their interest, but then undermines their faith, this would be a classic case of “bait and switch.” It would be like advertising an expensive course on the works of Shakespeare and then assigning only post-modern deconstructions of Shakespeare that cause students to hate him.
A “symbiotic” relationship is one in which both organisms benefit each other. A “parasitic” relationship, by contrast, drains its host of life. Biblical scholarship depends for its relevance upon people caring about the Bible as the revealed word of God.
And yet often enough such scholarship causes people to stop believing, or caring. People who don’t believe that the books of the Scriptures are the inspired word of God tend not to read them. Why would they? There are other, more pleasurable things to do with one’s time. People don’t spend hours meditating on a book unless they think it might have the key to human happiness or a clue to the deepest meaning of life.
You can’t scandalize the simple Biblical faith of a college student anymore by trying to convince him that Abraham was a literary creation of the period after the Babylonian Exile, since most have never heard of either Abraham or the Babylonian Exile. It’s like trying to convince them that the Zhou Dynasty came before the Shang. Even if you could get them to memorize the names, they wouldn’t have the slightest idea why anyone should care.
The danger for a parasite, however, is that, if the host dies, so does the parasite. Thus as theology departments and biblical studies programs have increasingly succeeded in diminishing religious faith, they have been, in effect, sawing off the branch they’re sitting on.
As “simple faith” has increasingly been discounted as naive and unsophisticated, magisterial teachings brushed aside as irrelevant, and the anti-Christian biases of modern secular society unleashed in torrents by the media, passion for Biblical scholarship has simply gone the way of the dodo. It’s not scandalous or edgy anymore; it’s just not relevant.
No one likes to be listened to by someone who has put you into a pre-conceived “box”: “egg-head intellectual,” “slut,” “dumb blonde.” People who put you into such boxes generally aren’t hearing what you’re saying. They hear only what they want, and then, hearing nothing new, they quickly get bored. Why would things be any different with God?