Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Some of what you will read here in this post is shared at America Magazine’s “The Good Word,” where I have blogged since 2007.  I have enjoyed the practice and habit of blogging immensely at “The Good Word,” which gave me the freedom to write on the topics and passages that I saw fit and, significantly, gave me a built in audience, since America Magazine has built up a reputation and readership in the century and more it has been in print. It is this readership which I will miss the most, since I enjoyed the comments, ideas, and good will which was generated at the site by readers. It made “The Good Word” a civilized site, which it remains, and which is sometimes too rare on the web, but which mirrors the purposes of the Bible, to transcend ephemeral differences amongst people and get to the true heart of matters. I hope that this new blog, www.biblejunkies.com, will be able to mimic the goodwill and kindness found at “The Good Word.”

“The Good Word” gave me the occasion to interpret the Bible in connection with the daily and weekly Lectionary readings and in the context of popular culture, music and movies especially, and current Church news and events. I am immensely grateful to Tim Reidy, the online editor, for offering me an opportunity to write for the magazine and I hope that, in some form or another, I will continue to contribute to America Magazine in the future, as Tim and I have discussed. So why leave “The Good Word” and start my own website when a perfectly good one exists at which I do nothing but post blog entries?

The move to my own website is connected with my desire to write more directly about my scholarly interests and my personal interests, which intersect in a number of ways. I began to feel that the things on my mind, biblically at least, were less connected to the cycle of the Lectionary readings and more to my academic study of the Bible. I did not feel that my overarching interest of exploring the intersection of Judaism, Christianity and the Greco-Roman world could be examined at “The Good Word” without imposing my interests on a blog dedicated to “Scripture and Preaching.” Since I began to study the Bible as an undergraduate student, I have been curious about the way in which Christianity “emerged” from Judaism and the cultural, religious and political factors which influenced Christianity as it developed. These influences leave their marks all over the New Testament and other early Christian literature, which developed in a culturally and religiously diverse world.

The whole conception of “development” in early Christianity, though, has come under attack in the Church and this has had a negative impact not only on the reception of early Christianity and its texts today, but on understanding the tension between tradition and change in every age of Christianity. This has also lead to increased attacks on biblical studies itself, which is seen as a culprit for delving into the historical origins of texts and doctrines, and some of which I fended off while writing for America Magazine. These attacks, though, have become a part of the way in which biblical studies has been sidelined in the Church.

Biblical studies has been marginalized as “atheological,” concerned only with historical minutiae, and interested in destroying the faith of the faithful. This attitude has been taken in a couple of ways. Some biblical scholarship, of a popular sort, has become overly pious and resolutely and systematically uninterested in scholarly, historical research. On the other hand, even in quarters sympathetic to  biblical studies, there has been a turn to spiritual reflection on biblical texts, with which I am sympathetic since this is much of what I did at America Magazine, for instance, but historical and scholarly study of the Bible has been sidelined as antithetical to such reflection or beyond the powers and interests of ordinary readers. This is nonsense, on both counts. We cannot and should not turn back from the gains made by the scholarly study of the Bible, even if we acknowledge that some biblical studies do not interest average readers. In what scholarly or research field is there not cutting edge research which will never gain a wide audience until it is disseminated in a broader form at some later time? Readers are capable, though, of understanding the field of biblical studies and we should not be creating pious fairytales to distract them or  get lost in soft, gauzy stained glass streams of light because ordinary Christians will have their faith shaken or could not understand the nuances of scholarship.

The Bible as a source of history has been misused and will continue to be misused, since every field has practitioners who are good and bad, but the results of historical critical scholarship have often been stunning: the relocation of Jesus as a 1st century Jew, not alien to his culture and religion; the renewed appreciation for Judaism as a living religion; the Easter experience as the location of the origin of the Church; Jesus’ scenario of the future as that of an imminent end; and the Gentile mission as the means by which the Church would bring the whole world into the covenant as imagined by the prophets in undisclosed terms centuries before them.

The study of the Bible, though, has come to be treated as an apologetic sourcebook and technique in Catholic circles, in which texts are mined for doctrines which are proudly held aloft, until they will be used as cudgels, either against Catholics with whom they disagree or other Christians, whom increasingly in some circles are known as “heretics”. It is to our great shame that in a time when ecumenical scholarship ought to be increasing, and still is in many ways and in many places, there are those who wish to take a great, giant step backward for understanding and interpretation. The rise of fundamentalism in biblical studies in both Catholicism and Evangelical circles must be countered on a consistent and regular basis. Christians of all kinds must be working together to interpret and understand the biblical text for the sake of the truth not to score cheap, apologetic points.

What I have just outlined is part of my goal at this website, shelved under “scholarly interests,” a goal to explore the scholarly study of the Bible for ordinary, that is, not professional, readers, in every way possible, through blog posts dissecting current stories on the Bible, new books, and new research and findings. The other part of my goal is what I meant earlier by “personal” interests. There are any number of sources about which one can find out the background and life story of athletes and actors, politicians and authors. I, personally, love to listen to biographies even about people who ultimately, I find, are shallow and boring. But who is tracking the biographies of the practitioners and professors of biblical studies, who are definitely not boring or shallow? I want to comprehend why people were and are attracted to the countercultural pursuit of biblical studies and to preserve their stories. At what age did people become attracted to the study of the Bible? What attracted them? The money? The power? The glory? The truth?

You can find podcasts on athletes and comedians and cultural movers and shakers – most of which I love – but I will be starting a series of podcasts on biblical scholars. The series will begin in 2012 and I will start with friends and teachers of mine and then begin to cast my net wide, like the early Church moving from Galilee to Jerusalem to Rome. It has been a great regret of mine that there is no audio record of so many of the great biblical scholars of the 20th century, including teachers of mine who are no longer with us. I want to make sure that a record is made for the 21st century. People tell me that a good podcast is about 20-30 minutes, but you can be assured that as professors like to talk and that as professors like nothing so much as to talk about their own field, my podcasts will be much longer. You can quake in fear, or have a little faith, but check back here soon for the first podcast and more blog posts.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens
Newer Post
This is the last post.


  1. Best wishes John in starting this new blog. I look forward to following it.

    A interesting and topical first post.

    I think that biblical studies are under attack mainly because they are misunderstood. The likes of the Jesus seminar has discredited the field. Pope Benedict XVI has insisted on the fundamental importance of the Historical Critical Method, although also on its limitations and the importance of a more holistic approach which includes the Historical Critical Method.

    God Bless

  2. Thanks Chris for your comment. I agree with your assessment, that many people do not understand the role of biblical studies and how foundational these approaches are to the study of the Bible. I think that much of the confusion has stemmed not from the use of the methods but the discounting by certain practitioners of the divine or even sacred character of the texts. I think it might be worthwhile to do a series on the "Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" from the Pontifical Biblical Commission. This is a significant document which should be known by readers of the Bible.