Of History and Religion

Last week at our Cooperative Student Fellowship Student-led Bible study, we had some guests from another, charismatic-leaning campus ministry. They invited us to attend their Thursday-night event, the showing of a 30-minute film showing that the Bible is totally historically true. Husband of an historian that I am, I immediately asked, “well, it makes an argument that the Bible is true, right?” and got in reply that no, it actually did. Around that time a member of my group chimed in and said, “he’s about to tell you he went to Harvard, so you know that he’s smarter than you.” That was interesting on two levels.

First, because my student likely shared my skepticism about what the video was going to do, and yet sought to discredit my question through a public questioning of my intentions. The goal was to end the conversation before it became uncomfortable and the means was to appeal to anti-intellectualism to do so (effectively saying, “he is only raising this question to show his own perceived intelligence”).

Both responses were particularly interesting to me because I was trying to suggest that we should use the techniques of history to evaluate the arguments of a video presented in the context of an event intended to bolster students’ religious interpretations in classes with skeptical professors. So, if the event is to have its stated effect (giving students knowledge for challenging skeptical professors), it ought to survive historical scrutiny. But with the first student, the film was not part of the same historical project her professors were undertaking, it was instead part of the world of faith-affirmation. For the second student, avoiding conflict was more important than contextualizing the information about to be received. Both undermine the goal of arming students for arguments in the academy.

After studying the Bible from a heavily historical-critical perspective, I’ve gotten a good idea of the range of things that can be proved and disproved in the Bible, and also of areas where the Bible contradicts itself. So I know there is ample ground to engage with hostile audiences about the historical basis of much of scripture, but only if it is properly framed and contextualized, given that there are many, many things that are outside the realm of archaeology and history to confirm or refute. Now, if one wants to have a hermeneutical approach that harmonizes those contradictions and incorporates both the confirmable and the impossible, that is a fine religious project to embark upon. But you cannot expect academics to respect that project on historical grounds; the historical project is quite different, and it is unlikely that the religious project will be persuasive to someone standing on the outside.

Ultimately, to care about the results of historical inquiry into the events of the Bible means being open to the limitations of the results and skeptical of the assertions being made. To do less suggests that history is merely a tool to be discarded when it does not fit the model of religion in one’s mind. But history can be a valuable tool in understanding a religious text and enriching the interpretation of that text. It’s just hard to fit the findings of history into a clear and straightforward framework of belief about what the text means–it was written over a thousand years in myriad contexts, and this makes it incredibly complicated.

Music and Meaning

I went to see a locally-staged workshopping of some songs from Carner and Gregor’s Island Song cycle by the WCU University Players on Tuesday night. The project highlights the loneliness and alienation that can come in the midst of the excitement and energy of being young in New York, effectively using humorous lyrics and catchy tunes to capture the absurdity that comes from being in that world. I found myself reflecting on the feelings that the pieces invoked in me; I was filled with an eerie feeling of nostalgia and wistful regret as the New York-centric life I had lived between 2000-2003 was put to music. When I mentioned this to the writers after the show, a sudden game of the “I lived in New Haven” “Oh, I used to live in New Haven, too” dance broke out. And so it came out that it should have been no surprise that the show captured that period of my life so succinctly, for Carner was a Yalie a year behind me; this was written from their experience with folks who might have been me.

It is hard, here in the mountains, to live in the present and look to the future, rather than the past. Perhaps it is the lack of work for me, perhaps it is the distance from the challenges facing my friends, perhaps it is just being older and having some fewer possibilities for my life than in those early days. But at the same time, I know, a day apart from the visceral reactions I had in that theater, that those were just highlights of my life in 2000-2003, memorable for their exceptionalism. The question for now, as it was for then, is “what is one’s life in this place?” For me now, there has been a sense of stagnation and loneliness because I have been starved for contact with people thinking about the same religious questions I am; in 2002 it was an office full of people who did not know the name Paul Wellstone.

In 2000, I did not think about the ways in which our place shapes us. I knew I did not want to live in New York, but was otherwise geographically flexible. Now, we find ourselves torn between the elements of our lives that we have longed for and the sense that we are not of this place and may never be. I have thought my call to ministry might include finding people a way to adapt to their own mismatched sense of place. But now I am not sure.

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