Sunday, February 10, 2008

The New Testament Scholar and the Importance of Teaching

Have you had the experience of reading a book and finding that the author discusses an issue that you would have never expected given the subject of the book, but that in the end was itself worth the price of the book? I had that experience again today as I was rereading Luke Timothy Johnson’s book The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels.

I am preparing a series of talks for an upcoming church retreat on Jesus for high school students and I was rereading Johnson's book The Real Jesus, one of my favorite books on the historical Jesus. The first time I read it I must have either skimmed this part or overlooked its profundity. In a chapter titled “Cultural Confusion and Collusion”, Johnson describes the crisis in the academic discipline of biblical and theological studies for contemporary relevance or cultural significance as he labels it. He observes that many professors of the Bible who were trained in the historical critical method in American university religious studies programs have a difficult time connecting to the needs of contemporary undergrad students. Johnson reflects on the fact that most of the professors’ training in this context was based on an assumption that historical scholarship was the answer to church tradition. Thus the job of a professor was to move students who were brought up within the traditions of a church a more critical and therefore better apprehension of Christianity through the historical critical study of the Bible. This paradigm requires that students have a pre-formed and “uncritical” tradition which they bring the classroom. It doesn’t take too much time in a contemporary classroom to realize that the target of which this paradigm is based is a mirage, a figment of imagination. Undergrads today have little to know prior biblical knowledge of which to be disabused. Even those students who come from strong evangelical homes are not all that more prepared to critically reflect on their knowledge. Johnson has hit his proverbal spot when he opines, “The pressing need of such students is to have the tradition transmitted in the first place” (1996:74, emphasis mine).

Johnson offers a way through the crisis of cultural significance by asserting that academics must “rediscover” the truth that the “finest expression of scholarship is in teaching”. He states that scholars must again become effective educators. He avers that scholars need “no other forum than the one already generously placed at their disposal by society, the classroom”. Finally he makes a strong suggestion that New Testament scholars "must above all develop models for studying the New Testament that, while lacking nothing in critical acumen, do not flatten the rich possibilities of those texts to the thin and distorted ‘history’ that has too often been made the representative of biblical scholarship” (1996:76).
To these thoughts I say a hearty "Amen!"

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