Sounds Like BS, ep. 5: Positive Gay Images in the Bible

In episode 5, I respond to suggestions about the possibility of passages that reflect positive attitudes toward sexuality.

These include a potentially homoerotic scene between Jacob and an angel wrestling alone in the night. For centuries, various writers and artists have explored the homoerotic potential of the scene. The seed of this interpretation lies in the fact that the angel is referred to as a “man” (32:24), as is often the case with angels, that some of the language is sexually suggestive (cf. 32:25), and that we tend to picture angels as beautiful men.

Against this interpretation, angels are often genderless and “man” is probably better translated “person,” the sexual language may have to do with Jacob’s genealogical potential more than his sexuality, and there’s no reason in the scene that the angel couldn’t be a chimeric monster covered in eyeballs.

Nevertheless, I have no problem if the episode gives someone a little charge.

Jacob and the Angel (detail), Hendrik Christian Andersen (1911)

It’s also possible that Matthew and Luke feature a scene with a couple who engage in homoerotic sex, yet Jesus does not reprimand them for it. This was the argument regarding the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 by Theodore Jennings and Tat-siong Benny Liew. Put briefly, it would be entirely common for a centurion, especially if he were a Roman citizen, to have sex with his slave. If Jennings and Liew are correct that in Matthew, the servant is his “boy-lover,” not strictly a slave, then it would be certain they were having sex.

This reading is questionable for a couple reasons. First, Jesus rarely calls people out for their sins when granting miracles, despite the evidence that he as a character would know them. That doesn’t necessarily mean he approved of them. Second, the relationship is probably not pedophilic in the way we mean it, but it is still exploitative. One risks making so many choices pushing for Jesus’s approval of homoerotic relationships that one endorses the exploitation of a powerless slave by a military commander.

Finally, there is the possibility that we might “read between the lines” on certain main characters and interpret them as in gay relationships. The three main contenders are Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, and Jesus and the Beloved Disciple. It’s interesting that all of them come from the same family line (well, Jesus adopted), but the video explores the assumptions we need to bring with us to end up with these couples as specifically gay couples. Of course, if that is how someone wants to read them, they are no worse off than someone who reads them as thoroughly platonic. It is only the case, as it is with anti-gay readings of the Bible, one needs to make certain choices along the way.

Here is the video if you’d like to watch:

Sounds Like BS, ep. 4: Paul’s Gay (?) Idolaters

For this final episode on biblical passages that Christian homophobes use to condemn LGBTQ people, we look at Romans 1:26-27. At just two verses, this is still the longest sustained argument against homosexuality in Christian bibles. It is also important because it addresses desire, not just homoerotic acts, and for the first time it addresses women.

In using this passage to condemn gay people, however, interpreters are making several choices:

  • They have to embrace Paul’s Roman context to infer homosexuality for the women, which is never explicitly stated in the text. Comparing them to gay men could just as likely indicate that both groups involved men, or both groups were having anal sex — in either case, the women wouldn’t be gay. However, since Rome was just starting to become concerned with non-heteronormative women (often ones with bisexual tendencies), it is possible some sort of homoerotic behavior would be inferred.
  • They have to ignore Paul’s Roman context for the men, though. Gay sex was often exploitative, abusive, coerced, and in some cases pedophilic in Roman culture. Modern homophobes and gay allies would agree that this sort of sex is ethically problematic — so it’s not terribly useful for a culture war. Ignoring these elements of Roman sex allows homophobes to generalize to all gay men and all gay women.
  • They also have to ignore the conclusion to Paul’s argument, which is not to judge and exclude others since everyone is guilty of sin. Christian homophobes glance over envy, greed, foolishness, and haughtiness as minor character traits, but lobby, rant, and rave against homosexuality.

The next episode will address some passages that LGBTQ and gay ally readers put forward as positive images of gay people in the Bible.

Here’s a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLHBnT90b8c

Review of Defiant by Kelley Nikondeha

My review of Kelley Nikondeha’s Defiant has just come out in Reviews in Religion and Theology, and I want to take a moment to strongly recommend that anyone interested in the women in the Bible or the positive role women can play in Christian life should read this book. It’s not very long and Nikondeha’s writing is clear, smooth, and it keeps you deeply engaged. My initial read-through took me only a few days – which is rare with a book I’m reviewing.

Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom: Nikondeha,  Kelley, Bessey, Sarah: 9780802864291: Amazon.com: Books
Cover of Defiant by Kelley Nikondeha

Nikondeha reads through Exodus, focusing on the women. While there isn’t a lot of material for her to work with, she creatively interweaves her interpretations with stories of women from different times and cultures that help to unpack their experiences and highlight what must have been going on behind the scenes. The juxtapositions often feel like an epiphany. I will undoubtedly continue to feel the impact of reading Defiant in my own readings and teaching.

There are, appropriately enough, 12 women in Exodus who play a vital role in Israel’s deliverance from slavery:

  • The midwives Shiphrah and Puah, who protect Israelite boys from death long enough for Moses (and Yahweh) to lead them out of Egypt.
  • Moses’s mother, Jochebed, his sister, Miriam, and the Pharaoh’s daughter, traditionally named Bithiah, who conspire to save Moses from infanticide.
  • The seven sisters of Midian, including one of Moses’s wives, Zipporah, who saves Moses from Yahweh… for some reason. Nikondeha doesn’t adequately explain why Zipporah needs to protect Moses from God, but that’s not really her fault. Interpreters have been struggling with that question for millennia.

Nikondeha puts these women in dialogue with figures like Rosa Parks and Emma González, and with her own experiences in the US and Africa.

Again, Defiant is accessible and even includes reading guides for use in Bible studies or reading groups. For more details, see my review in RIRT. I wholeheartedly recommend the book, and look forward to Nikondeha’s future work.

Sounds Like BS, ep. 3: Paul’s Softies and Man-F@#kers

In 1 Cor 6:9-10, Paul gives a vice list. Nothing weird here, except two words that Paul rarely uses (one appears only here, another only once more in 1 Tim 1:10), and which translators and interpreters seem to have trouble nailing down precisely. In the English versions, translations include effeminate men, Sodomites (despite Sodomite being a biblical word if Paul wanted to use it), homosexuals, “transvestites” (by which I assume they mean transgender men, but who knows), and male prostitutes. The problems, which I outline in the video, are that one is a euphemism, the other a neologism, and both are slang. But have interpreters made the right choices in focusing almost exclusively on men who don’t fit a heteronormative ideal?

The episode examines the many options for translating malakoi or “soft ones,” many of which could be chosen while fitting Paul’s theology and not excluding gay men. It also looks at the social context of Paul’s vulgar term, arsenokoitai, asking whether the practice of exploitation and coercion in Roman homoerotic practices may play a role in how we interpret the word.

As I warn at the outset of the video, some of the language gets a bit salty since both words are capable of referring to sex acts — so fair warning.

Sounds Like BS, Ep. 2: Leviticus 18 and 20

I’ve just uploaded my second episode of Sounds Like BS on the laws regarding anal sex in Leviticus 18 and 20. As I did in my earlier video on Sodom and Gomorrah, I look at the choices readers have to make in order to turn the passage into a condemnation of homosexuality — since that’s where they want to get in the end.

The laws themselves seem to prohibit anal sex between Israelite men, a specific sex act between people of a specific gender from a specific cultural milieu. In order to get that very narrow commandment to support a homophobic reading, they must:

  1. choose to see anal sex between men (which not all gay couples practice) as a symbol for all sexual and romantic activity between two men. This is inconsistent with their typical reading logic since they don’t take prohibitions against specific heterosexual sex acts (like sex during menstruation, anal sex, oral sex, etc.) as symbols for all heterosexual activity, so that heterosexuality would be condemned. If banning one sex act condemns a whole sexual orientation (homosexuality), then one would think banning dozens of sex acts would condemn that sexual orientation (heterosexuality), but homophobic readers don’t choose to apply their reasoning consistently.
  2. choose to hear a law about men as somehow having anything to do with lesbians. In most sexual ethical discussions until the 20th century, couples were grouped by who was involved (men or women), or by what they were doing. Linking a prohibition on male anal sex to lesbians is unlikely since a) the act only involves men, so it is more likely linked to other types of couples that involve men, i.e. straight couples, and b) it involves anal sex, which again is more likely linked to other couples who could have anal sex, i.e. straight couples. The choice to read lesbians into the law is especially forced and reflects our modern way of thinking more than ancient Israelite ethics.
  3. if they are Christian, choose to care about this law when they don’t bother with most of the rest of them. This does not just have to do with laws that Christians view as specifically Jewish, such as not working on Saturdays, but also with laws against, e.g. adultery — condemned very strongly and on many occasions, but which many Christians are eager to forgive or look the other way. Not use them to justify legislation and violence against people who cheat on their spouses.

In short, believing Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 condemn all homosexuality is a conclusion you only reach if you work to get there. You have to make choices. And of course, there are other choices you can make.

Here’s the video for Sounds Like BS 2: Leviticus 18 and 20:

youtube.com/watch?v=2-5t31HVl1I

Thanks!

Are Paul’s ἀρσενοκοῖται Gay if They’re Women? When Context Matters More than Grammar

At the moment I’m finishing a work on modern arguments against homosexuality which use the New Testament. There are only four verses and a misreading of Gen 19 to work with, so a lot of weight gets put on two words in 1 Cor 6:9: μαλακοὶ and ἀρσενοκοῖται. The former literally means “soft ones” and is male, suggesting effeminacy in Greco-Roman anthropology. I highlight that there are many ways this insult is used in Paul’s context, only a minority of them having anything to do with homoerotic behavior, and then to sex slaves (so, not consensual), prostitutes (problematic in its own right), or to ‘bottoms’. Meanwhile, “soft” can refer to masturbators, wealthy men, over-educated men (relevant in 1 Corinthians), gluttons, men who liked sex with women too much, and even men who cared for their wives too much. It can even mean people with a physical illness (cf. Matt 4:23; 9:35; 10:1). So,

  • If “soft” appears, it can refer to many different issues in Paul’s Greek context; and
  • If Paul wanted to attack ‘bottoms’, there are other terms that are just as popular (passive, mounted, boy, etc.).

Without more context, Paul’s precise meaning is unclear and the reader has to make a lot of choices to get to an anti-homosexual message. In other words, one has to go out of one’s way to pick the meaning that applies to some gay men, let that act represent all male homosexual behavior, and let male homosexual behavior represent all homosexual behavior, male or female. Continue reading

Elitism, Exclusion, and the Culture of Post-Secondary Biblical Studies: A Lesson in Self-Harm (Part 3 of 3)

The following is the second part of a text that I presented to the Teaching the Bible section of the MWSBL in February, 2020. The data will clearly be out of date after the devastating impact of the pandemic on higher education, but they show that the situation for biblical studies was already very bad. For the introduction, see Part 1. For the impact on students, see Part 2.

The Impact on Faculty

Making a Bad Job Market Worse

In assessing the impact on faculty, it is necessary to acknowledge how bad the job market is. There are certainly larger global issues at play, such as the ‘adjunctification’ of higher education, but this is all the more reason not to amplify problems inherent in the job market.

In these sorts of discussions, the terms “supply and demand” tend to come up (generally from administrators or tenure-track faculty), with potential instructors in great supply but not in great demand.[1] However, this is alienating to instructors, especially contingent ones because it assumes the perspective of the administration, with instructors as the metaphorical “widget.” As most BS instructors are not in administration, let us re-orient this economic analysis to our own perspective: among biblical scholars, there is high demand for higher ed positions that let us teach BS full-time while earning a living wage and maybe even growing a retirement account. Unfortunately, there is very little supply of those positions. As any economist might predict, biblical scholars end up paying a lot to teach biblical studies—in the form of delayed earning potential, low pay, absent job security, geographic instability, and so forth. It is untenable, and common solutions generally point to lowering demand by graduating fewer PhDs or by encouraging contingent labor to leave the field. This too quickly overlooks the possibility of improving the supply of biblical studies positions.

To recap, less than half of the schools in Illinois offer courses in BS, and these schools account for just 37% of the total students. Also concerning is that 21 of these schools (more than half) listed just one section of a BS course in the latest semester, not enough to sustain a full-time position.

In a third of these cases, a biblical scholar teaches the one course while also teaching other theology or religion courses. This presents no problem for most biblical scholars.

In another third, a theologian or some other type of religious scholar has taken on the one BS course. I guess that’s fair.

In the last third, the one course is taught by an adjunct, or by scholars in Classics or English Literature. This last category shows there is interest in BS, but the field has not capitalized on the interest by building it up to a fully realized position. It also shows a potential for expansion.

In Illinois, BS has basically tapped out opportunities in small liberal arts schools. Only six of the remaining schools are private. Two are Christian universities (Millikin University, St. Augustine College), so maybe an easier sell. Another two, however, are unlikely to pick up BS courses, if their limited offerings in other areas are any indication (National Louis University, Roosevelt University). That leaves two other private colleges (Knox College, Lake Forest College) and 39 public institutions. If BS is going to expand, it will have to be willing to leave its comfort zone and actively find ways to establish a foothold in well-funded public institutions with high enrollment.

Religious Exclusivism and Discrimination in Biblical Studies… Again

Finally, we have to return to this issue of religious discrimination, since it is arguably sharper for faculty than it is for students. Again, all nine schools that explicitly and systematically discriminate based on religion employ BS faculty—and because the Bible is a core element of their curricula, they actually employ almost half (43%) of the full-time biblical scholars in Illinois. In other words, they do an excellent job promoting BS and employing biblical scholars, but only for a very narrow set of students and instructors. All faculty members at Wheaton College, for example, must sign off on a “Statement of Faith” and adhere to a “Community Covenant” (with features “similar to religious orders”) that condemns homosexuality and even the private use of tobacco.[2] The greater the concentration of BS in this sort of Christian school, the more likely potential BS faculty will encounter similar non-academic criteria for working in a supposedly academic field.

Few schools are so explicit about their discrimination, although there is widespread suspicion of implicit religious discrimination in the field. Anecdotally, I have known contingent scholars reluctant to spend the many hours building an application to a school that crosses church lines. They simply do not trust that church affiliation plays no role, even if it is implicit or behind the scenes. Many of the existing faculty at Christian schools are ordained or otherwise qualified to preach in an affiliated church, have learned at an affiliated seminary, or have religious (rather than purely academic) degrees, such as a MDiv. Although it is difficult to measure precisely without survey data, there does seem to be a strong correlation between the church of the school and the church of the instructors.

Furthermore, church-affiliated schools often place religious demands or preferences on BS faculty in particular, even when they place no such demands on other departments. The 2018-2019 Biblical Studies jobs wiki[3] lists 22 job postings in the US that were not at seminaries or Bible colleges. Just three were at public or unaffiliated private institutions. The remaining 19 (86%) were at Christian or Jewish colleges and universities. The European History jobs wiki for the same year,[4] meanwhile, lists 64 job postings in the US, with just 10 (16%) at Christian colleges or universities.

Furthermore, on average Christian schools advertising for BS positions mentioned the Christian identity of the school more than four times per post (4.3x), while Christian schools advertising for positions in European history mention it less than once (0.4x). In other words, church-affiliated schools advertise their Christian identity at a rate ten times higher for BS scholars than for European History positions. This suggests that Christian schools are more likely to view BS as part of their religious mission as well as—or instead of—their academic mission.[5] This in turn justifies, legally and intentionally, religious discrimination against biblical scholars.

We can also compare the religious demands made by the Christian schools advertising on each page. For European history, just one college makes a religiously-oriented demand: Grove City College would like applicants to provide a pastoral reference. Meanwhile, ten of the BS postings (45%) (!) make explicit demands on the beliefs, private behaviors, and/or church membership of applicants. For a brief sampler (emphasis added):

  • “As a religious educational institution, Baylor is lawfully permitted to consider an applicant’s religion among its selection criteria.”
  • “Calvin College seeks faculty members who affirm the Christian faith as expressed by the Reformed confessions…Calvin College is an educational agency of the Christian Reformed Church and, in compliance with Title VII and other applicable law, reserves the right to give preference in employment based upon religion.”
  • “Documentation should clearly explain how your Christian faith represents a strong fit with the mission of Messiah College.”
  • “The position requires active membership in a Church of Christ” (Pepperdine University).
  • Candidates must also have a personal, vibrant faith and Christian walk and be strongly committed to the educational mission and evangelical Christian orientation of the University. Candidates will be expected to affirm the Taylor University Life Together Covenant, Statement of Faith, and essential documents.”
  • “Successful candidates must be professing Christians who are active members of a local church, enthusiastically support Union University’s Identity, Mission, and Core Values, and articulate a Christian worldview in their work and life.”

These of course are not academic criteria, but creedal ones. Not only do they signal that religious discrimination is a real threat to biblical scholars, even devoutly Christian ones, they also signal to people outside of the field that BS is not truly or exclusively academic. In some cases, biblical scholars can be perceived as church functionaries with pretentions to scholarship. Arguably, the disproportional reliance of BS on church-affiliated schools contributes to this impression. It is also a positive feedback loop: the more BS concentrates in church-affiliated schools, the more difficult it is to branch outside of this narrow context. Outsiders may assume biblical scholars are pseudo-academics who covertly want to preach to their students, as happened in the “Bible as Literature” movement of the 1960s.[6] Shifting the weight of BS toward non-church-affiliated institutions would have the potential effect of refocusing the field on academic concerns over non-academic religious ones. At any rate, there is simply little room to expand in private Christian colleges and universities.

Final Observations

In summary, access to BS at the post-secondary level is very limited, often confined to small, expensive, and religiously oriented schools, or taught in one or two sections at larger schools. By catering to a very select student body echoing the interests and demographics of biblical scholars, these same scholars limit opportunities for students to actually learn biblical studies.

The silver lining is that there is ample room for expansion. Scholars in philosophy also complain about the job market in their field, but there is almost nowhere for them to go: in Illinois, only two universities do not offer a course in philosophy every semester, accounting for just 0.5% of the student population. There are often more sections of philosophy at the schools they do reach than sections of BS. If their job market is tight, they have no real option to increase the supply of full-time academic positions; they can only reduce the demand by graduating fewer PhDs or filtering them out of the field more quickly. By contrast, BS is not reaching half the schools and almost 2/3 of the students. While not without substantial challenges, there is at least the possibility of augmenting the limited offerings enough to support a full-time position, or of expanding into the 45 schools that currently offer no courses in BS. While an argument can certainly be made for shuttering PhD programs or lowering enrollment in them, or for filtering biblical scholars out of academia, it is not clear that we should jump to such extreme positions which only weakens the field, as the only options.

However, given the demographics of the remaining schools, BS needs to work actively and consciously to expand into public education. This is not impossible. Schools like the University of Iowa, Florida State University, University of Georgia, Indiana University Bloomington, University of Michigan, University of Virginia, or the University of North Carolina are examples of quality undergraduate biblical studies education at public institutions. In Illinois, Bible courses are already offered at Illinois State University, University of Illinois (Urbana/Champaign and Chicago), and at several community colleges—an area ripe for expansion.

Such a move into public education, however, comes with certain likely consequences. First, BS may not be housed in traditional theology or religious studies departments, but rather in departments of philosophy, humanities, English, or comparative literature. The core courses that supplement BS courses would be in those areas, so that biblical scholars may need to get used to teaching ethics, modern humanities, or writing rather than Intro to Theology. It might also mean that doctoral programs may have to recruit students with broader academic backgrounds, and to develop greater interdisciplinary teaching and research opportunities for their candidates to make them competitive. This may mean either lending them out to other departments or giving them the leeway to develop BS courses cross-listed with other departments.

Second, the demographics of our students will shift. They may not be the ‘typical’ or ideal Bible student. For example, they may not be devoutly Christian, make similar assumptions about the text as the instructor, or even be remotely familiar with the Bible. They may be openly hostile to religions like Judaism and Christianity. If at a community college or other access institution, students may need significantly more help with reading and writing, or may be reluctant to purchase many expensive secondary texts—or even costly new study bibles. However, they may be students who are curious about the academic study of texts that have real impact on people’s beliefs and behavior.

With a different set of students with different interests in the Bible, biblical scholars would also have to tailor their curricula to this new audience. Some Bible instructors are very comfortable embracing the religious mission of church-affiliated schools; they find the religious impact they have on students highly gratifying. At a public institution, they would not be able to teach from a forcefully evangelistic Christian perspective. The goal would have to be teaching, not indoctrination. That does not mean they would have to forsake their religious identity.

However, the missions of public institutions differ in some ways from church-affiliated ones. Establishing a presence at public institutions requires framing BS curricula in terms of those missions, and demonstrating how the course will benefit their students outside of specifically religious or theological concerns. Taking such a position does not mean that we cannot ask serious religious, moral, and philosophical questions in the context of a biblical studies course, only that our goals may not include glorifying a particular religion’s particular understanding of a particular god in the classroom.

Hopefully the benefits of moving into public education would outweigh the costs. If we could expand into more public institutions, it would mean more jobs for biblical scholars, but also broader outreach to students, and a greater diversity of students and the perspectives they bring. This will only happen if we consciously recognize the problem and proactively work to alleviate it. Setting up panel discussions or task forces to collect data and create resources for young scholars to use as they enter doctoral programs or the job market would be just one way to help emerging biblical scholars become more competitive on the education job market. This in turn may open up more opportunities to introduce biblical studies into the curricula at more schools. Actively facilitating discussions between already established departments focused on securing funding and growing their programs would be another.

If we have a defeatist attitude, presuming for example that funding is impossible to wrangle or that public institutions simply won’t take us, nothing will happen. The field will continue to shrink, and the Society of Biblical Literature will simply fail in its goal of promoting biblical education. Yet if we actively work together, and work alongside scholars already at schools who have managed to secure funding for BS courses, we could better understand the real obstacles they face and how to overcome them. The Society of Biblical Literature is a professional society after all, and so the perfect venue to apply the collective intelligence of our members to this professional and pedagogical challenge.


[1] This happens often in opinion pieces, e.g., Peter Conn (Professor of English and Education, University of Pennsylvania), “We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities,” Chronicle of Higher Education (April 4, 2010), online: http://www.chronicle.com/article/We-Need-to-Acknowledge-the/64885, or especially in the comments on opinion pieces, e.g., the comments by Steve Covello (as he mentions, full-time Instructional Designer at Granite State College) attached to Jill Carroll, “Leaving the Adjunct Track,” Chronicle Vitae (March 17, 2017), online: chroniclevitae.com/news/1737-leaving-the-adjunct-track. Conn recommends graduating fewer PhDs, while Covello recommends scholars leaving higher education (see also former adjunct Elizabeth Segran, “The Dangers of Victimizing Ph.D.’s [sic],” Chronicle of Higher Education [April 1, 2014], online: http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Dangers-of-Victimizing/145643). Jeffrey J. Williams confusingly attempts to meet the argument on its own terms in defense of adjuncts while still taking the perspective of administration (“The Great Stratification,” Chronicle of Higher Education 60/14 [2013], online: http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Great-Stratification/143285). Here, I apply the supply/demand model but from the educator’s perspective who desires a full-time, permanent academic position in low supply.

[2] “Statement of Faith and Educational Purpose” (online: http://www.wheaton.edu/about-wheaton/statement-of-faith-and-educational-purpose/) and “Community Covenant” (online: http://www.wheaton.edu/about-wheaton/community-covenant/).

[3] “Biblical Studies 2018-2019,” n.p., online: academicjobs.wikia.com/wiki/Biblical_Studies_2018-2019 (last viewed February 2020).

[4] “European History 2018-2019,” n.p., online: academicjobs.wikia.com/wiki/European_History_2018-19 (last viewed February 2020).

[5] In recent union negotiations, Loyola University Chicago was granted an exception for the department of theology (which includes BS faculty and graduate instructors), taking the position that theology falls under the school’s religious mission—despite the fact that Loyola also hosts an Institute for Pastoral Studies (IPS) and until recently a seminary satisfying the religious mission of the school (see Julie Whitehair, “Theology Department Excluded from Faculty Union Ruling,” Loyola Phoenix [April 5, 2017], online: loyolaphoenix.com/2017/04/theology-department-excluded-faculty-union-ruling/). Both IPS students and Jesuit Scholastics are required to take courses in theology, which may help justify the administration’s position on the department’s religious mission. However, Scholastics are also required to take philosophy courses, yet Loyola did not argue that the philosophy department serves its religious mission.

[6] See David E. Aune, “Literary Criticism,” pages 116–39 in David E. Aune (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament (Malden: Wiley–Blackwell, 2010), 119.

Elitism, Exclusion, and the Culture of Post-Secondary Biblical Studies: A Lesson in Self-Harm (Part 2)

The following is the second part of a text that I presented to the Teaching the Bible section of the MWSBL in February, 2020. The data will clearly be out of date after the devastating impact of the pandemic on higher education, but they show that the situation for biblical studies was already very bad. This analysis continues from part 1, here.

The Impact on Students

Biblical studies is disproportionately taught in 1) small, 2) private, and often 3) church-affiliated liberal arts schools. Each of these modifiers imposes limitations on the diversity and number of students we reach.

Limited Seats in Specific Settings

Let’s begin with the size of most BS schools. Fewer than half the schools offer BS, and on average, these schools enroll 3,000 fewer undergraduates than non-BS schools. Such a concentration in small liberal arts colleges exposes two limitations in itself. First, there are not enough seats to expand. Six BS schools enroll fewer than 1,000 students.[1] Such schools simply do not have the capacity to reach most Illinois students. If it suddenly became all the rage to attend small colleges, these schools simply lack the infrastructure to accommodate large numbers of students. When Bible courses are not required, we end up competing for a small percentage of a very small number of elective students.

Second, BS attracts mostly students who want to go to small liberal arts colleges. Many biblical scholars attended small colleges as undergraduates, so they may feel at home in low enrollment schools.[2] However, we cannot only teach younger versions of ourselves. Skewing toward this demographic effectively excludes the many students who would prefer not to attend a small, often rural or suburban liberal arts school. A student who prefers attending a big school or one with a popular athletic program shifts the probability sharply away from choosing a school that offers BS. While these are not academic criteria, or criteria that biblical scholars always hold in high regard, they ensure that large groups of students remain out of reach.

Socio-Economic Elitism

Large schools are by definition popular, and their administrations might point to a number of reasons for why are so attractive. But there is one factor that undoubtedly plays a major role: they are often much cheaper.

Graph 3: Enrollment in Illinois Schools vs. Cost of Tuition and Fees

The cost of higher education has ballooned by more than 160% over the past three decades (adjusted for inflation). College degrees have become prerequisite to many job applications, yet salaries have not grown nearly as quickly as tuition and fees.[3] While private colleges and universities often enjoy considerable prestige, they lack the enrollment numbers of cheaper public options, especially when compared to community colleges. Among the 86 schools surveyed in Illinois, 47 (54.7%) are public and 39 (45.3%) are private. Among the 41 schools that offer BS, only eight (19.5%) are public, 33 (80.5%) are private—a highly significant shift toward private education.[4]

Table 2: Comparison of Public vs. Private BS and Non-BS Schools

PublicPrivate
BS Schools8 (19.5%)33 (80.5%)
Non-BS Schools39 (86.7%)6 (13.3%)
Total47 (54.7%)39 (45.3%)

The concentration of BS in private schools means that it is substantially more expensive to have the privilege of studying the Bible. If we imagine a high school senior considering her options, she will find tuitions and fees at schools offering BS much more expensive per year than schools not offering biblical studies:

Average yearly cost at schools that do not offer BS courses:                             $11,741.35

Average yearly cost at schools that offer BS courses:                                          $29,719.12[5]

In other words, it costs almost $18,000 extra per year on average (or $72,000 additional cost for a four-year degree) to attend a school that offers BS. Many students choose less expensive schools, but in doing so, they are also unlikely to choose a school with BS. Concerns about going into excessive debt are growing as tuitions rise, and the field of BS runs the risk of pricing itself out of the market for many students. Arguably, it already has.

The added cost to attend BS schools is inevitably offset to some extent by scholarships and other funding, although it is difficult to measure the impact of these awards without more detailed (often private) information. Funding is available for students at less expensive schools too; even if they do not receive as much financial assistance in dollar amounts, they are still likely paying less on average. This means that BS as a discipline serves mostly the economic elite or those dedicated enough to their educations to go into substantial debt. Biblical scholars are often deeply dedicated to their own educations, so again we may skew toward teaching students like us.[6] In doing so, however, we are erecting substantial financial barriers to learning about the Bible. Additionally, biblical scholars have to consider whether educating mostly the privileged of the already privileged (college students) reflects their values.

Religious Exclusivism and Discrimination in Biblical Studies

There is yet a third way that the field limits access to students: the explicitly religious mission of most schools offering BS. Overall, just 26 (30.2%) Illinois schools are affiliated with a church. Among the schools offering BS, 24 (58.5%) are affiliated with a church—again, a significant increase.[7] The Christian identity of a school is very attractive to some students and parents, and many church-affiliated schools welcome students of all religious stripes (or non-religious stripes, for that matter). For these students, the Christian identities of schools offering BS courses is a positive factor, or at least a neutral one. I myself have taught many Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu students who chose a Christian university because of its religious values.

Table 3: Comparison of Church-Affiliation in BS Schools vs. Non-BS Schools

Church-AffiliatedNon-Affiliated
BS Schools24 (58.5%)17 (41.5%)
Non-BS Schools2 (4.4%)43 (95.6%)
Total26 (30.2%)60 (69.8%)

However, there are students for whom the Christian mission of many BS schools will be a deterrent. Some non-Christian students may not want Christian concerns influencing their educations.[8] These students are less likely able to study the Bible critically. Christian students too may be hesitant to cross ecclesiastical lines—for example, an Evangelical at a Catholic university, or vice versa.

More directly discriminating are the Christian schools that make explicit religious demands on students’ beliefs and private behaviors. Mandatory statements of faith or community guidelines may actively exclude a large portion of potential BS students: LGBTQ+ students, smokers, social dancers,[9] sexually active or non-Christian students, or just members of non-affiliated churches. We will return to this issue in the next post with regards to faculty. In any case, if an otherwise viable church-affiliated school imposes unwanted beliefs, non-academic behavioral standards, or church membership on students, they are more likely to choose a religiously neutral public or private institution—one much less likely to offer courses on the Bible. The more an academic field relies on schools like this, the more exclusive and so the more limited it is in terms of student outreach.

Conclusion

If we consider the type of student with easy access to BS, that student will:

  • More likely want to go to a small liberal arts college than to a community college or a large university;
  • Be willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars extra for a college degree;
  • And probably be comfortable getting an education in a specifically Christian environment.

This is a very particular group. There are many of these students, but nowhere near a majority of them. If a goal of biblical scholars is to branch out and teach a larger portion of the post-secondary population, it will have to deviate from its preferred student—which again, looks remarkably like ourselves.


[1] They are Blackburn College, Eureka College, Greenville University, Illinois College, MacMurray College, and Principia College.

[2] A survey of 54 biblical scholars in Illinois whose CVs are publicly available shows that 66.7% (36 full-time faculty members) attended as undergraduates schools that now enroll fewer than 10,000 students, 32 of them (59.3% of the total) schools with fewer than 5,000 students. In other words, most of us went to small schools. Meanwhile, just 36% of Illinois students attend schools under 10,000 students, and only 19% schools under 5,000 students. In other words, we are not the norm.

[3] Jillian Berman and Jay Zehngebot, “Paying for your College: 30 Years Ago vs. Today,” Market Watch (November 21, 2017), n.p., online: http://www.marketwatch.com/graphics/college-debt-now-and-then/.

[4] Comparing BS to non-BS schools, χ2 = 39.04 (p < 0.00001), although there was little suspicion of random distribution.

[5] For non-BS schools, s = $9,672 with 90% confidence interval ($0, $27,304) (so a student can be 90% confident tuition will be less than $27,304); the median cost is $8,530 (so half the schools cost less than $8,530). For BS schools, s = $12,009 with 90% confidence interval ($0, $49,473) (so a student has to go up to almost $50,000 to be 90% confident about the cost of BS schools); the median cost is $30,800.

[6] Drawing again from our sample of 54 biblical scholars with public CVs, 42 (77.8%) attended private institutions as undergraduates, while just 18.4% of Illinois undergraduates attend private institutions.

[7] χ2 = 26.76 (p < 0.00001), BS schools to non-BS schools. Among the 54 biblical scholars sampled, 38 (70.4%) attended church-affiliated institutions as undergraduates, whereas just 10.9% of Illinois undergraduates attend church-affiliated institutions.

[8] Anecdotally, I once tutored a student taking a course in American History online. She was surprised that she got a quiz question wrong about the origins of Native Americans by choosing the answer pointing to a migration from Asia roughly 10,000 years ago. The ‘correct’ answer was a Jewish migration from Israel 2,600 years ago. She was taking the course at Brigham Young University; the famously Mormon school did not differentiate between American history and Mormon religious history.

[9] See the “Lifestyle Statement” at Judson University (www.judsonu.edu/uploadedFiles/__Judson_Public/Admissions/Undergraduate_Studies/Counselors/Forms_and_Surveys/LIfestyle%20Statement.pdf): “Compliance with regulations in the Judson University Student Handbook, and with the directions of university personnel, is expected. Please be aware of the views of the university regarding social dancing, profanity, chapel attendance, dorm behavior, freshmen curfews etc.” (emphasis added).

Elitism, Exclusion, and the Culture of Post-Secondary Biblical Studies: A Lesson in Self-Harm

The following is the first part of a text that I presented to the Teaching the Bible section of the MWSBL in February, 2020. The data will clearly be out of date after the devastating impact of the pandemic on higher education, but they show that the situation for biblical studies was already very bad. This analysis builds on an earlier partial examination of biblical studies in Illinois; here.

“So, what do you teach?”

“Religious studies, but I specialize in biblical studies.”

“Are you, like, a pastor or something?”

I am not the only biblical scholar to have had such a conversation, and if my experience is at all typical, these conversations would seem to happen often. It suggests a general misapprehension about the field of biblical studies (or BS) that confuses the critical study of the Bible, perhaps the most influential collection of texts in Western history, with devotion and adherence to it. Or put another way, people widely confuse teaching about the Bible (critically and descriptively) with indoctrinating from it (religiously and normatively).[1] As we will see, there is good reason for such misapprehensions, fostered in part by the field of biblical studies itself.

Among the goals listed in its mission, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) includes “Collaborating with educational institutions and other appropriate organizations to support biblical scholarship and teaching,” and “Developing resources for diverse audiences, including students, religious communities, and the general public.”[2] Stating goals raises questions of success: how well have the society and its members supported biblical scholarship and teaching?[3] How broad and diverse an audience are we actually reaching? The short answers are: not great, and not very.

In order to delve into these questions a bit deeper to see where the field is succeeding, where it is falling short, and what opportunities exist for improvement, I surveyed 86 general education colleges and universities in Illinois to determine whether they offered even one course in BS in the most recent semester with available data.[4] This data was collected from college websites, or when that was unavailable (especially student enrollment levels), through US News & World Report profiles. Specialized health science, art, or technical colleges (like the Illinois Institute of Technology) were excluded since their missions are too narrow to include BS. Bible colleges and seminaries were also excluded since students there have already signaled a strong predisposition toward biblical study. The question posed here is rather how many general post-secondary students in Illinois are able to take a course in BS if they are interested. Are we in a good position to reach this audience?

The results at first glance are disheartening, with a minority of schools offering biblical studies, and a smaller minority of students able to study it. Below we will look at the general picture of the availability of BS courses at Illinois colleges and universities. Then we will examine the traditional distribution of BS in higher education institutions as reflected in Illinois, the limitations this distribution carries, and its impact on potential students and faculty. Finally, I will make some observations about the potential for growth in the field of biblical studies.

The General Picture

Of the 86 Illinois colleges and universities surveyed (608,327 total students), just 41 (47.7%) listed any courses in BS in the latest semester with a public course schedule. That is, less than half of the schools in Illinois enable students to study the Bible academically. Yet BS tends to focus on small, private colleges with low enrollment. Just four of the ten largest schools offer BS, for example, while nine of the ten smallest schools do. Therefore, the picture gets worse when we focus on the proportion of students rather than of schools. Just 37.1% of students (225,676) are enrolled at schools offering BS. Barely more than a third of students could take a course in BS if they chose.

Table 1: The Relative Sizes Biblical Studies Schools vs. Non-Biblical Studies Schools

SchoolsStudents
Biblical Studies41225,676
No Biblical Studies45382,651
Total86608,327

To put these figures in perspective, we can compare the availability of seven other disciplines. Graph 1 compares the number of BS schools with schools listing courses in biology, calculus, philosophy, Spanish, theater, and recreation.[5]

Graph 1: Illinois Schools with Courses in Biblical Studies, Biology, Calculus, Latin,[6] Philosophy, Recreation, Spanish, and Theater

Barring one or two small schools, a scholar qualified to teach biology, calculus, philosophy, or Spanish can find work at almost any institution in Illinois. Biblical studies falls behind theater and even recreation courses—meaning that a student is more likely able to take yoga or bowling than a course on the Gospels. Of the fields sampled, only Latin falls behind BS.

If we instead compare the proportions of students with access to each discipline, BS falls behind even Latin:

Graph 2: Percentage of Students at Illinois Schools with Courses in Biblical Studies, Biology, Calculus, Latin, Philosophy, Recreation, Spanish, and Theater

So, a potential reach of half of the schools and a third of the students is not the norm. While biblical scholars may be sympathetic to the study of Latin, it is nevertheless noteworthy that more students can study a dead language than a living tradition of important religious texts. The situation is bad for BS, but why is it so bad? There is already a lot of commentary available about higher education’s shift toward vocational training, leaving little room for humanities education.[7] More narrowly (in private conversation), scholars of Christianity lament the displacement of Christian studies to make room for the study of other religions. These are real issues that cannot be dismissed. However, here I want to focus on how we in the field of biblical studies contribute to our own marginalization. How do we take a bad situation and make it worse?


[1] Commenting on the US Supreme Court ruling in Abington v Schempp (1963), Gary Kessler makes the distinction: “The teaching of religion involves sectarian indoctrination, while teaching about it provides information without supporting any particular sect. Nothing, according to the Court, in the ruling prohibiting prayer in public schools, should be understood to forbid teaching about religion in public schools. What the public schools must avoid is the promotion of the viewpoint of a particular religious sect or group” (Studying Religion: An Introduction through Cases [3rd ed.; Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007], 2). Still, Bret Lewis notes while discussing religious studies courses in public colleges, “religious studies faces a certain level of suspicion or misunderstanding as to its place within a public or secular educational setting. There is often confusion as to whether the study of religion is indistinguishable from religious practice” (The Impact of Religious Studies Courses: Measuring Change in Undergraduate Attitudes [PhD diss., Arizona State University, 2011], 11). The same principles apply to the teaching of a religious cultural artifact like the Bible.

[2] See “Mission,” online: sbl-site.org/aboutus/mission.aspx.

[3] This is especially important as 2018 was the worst year on record for academic jobs postings at the SBL employment site (aarsbl.org) since they began tracking the data (SBL, “Job Advertisement Data 2017–2018,” online: http://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/JobsReportAy18.pdf, p. 1).

[4] All data collected in May, 2019.

[5] “Recreation” courses include those focused on physical activity, e.g., Yoga, Horse Riding, or Bowling. While many are listed under “Physical Education,” courses on the actual pedagogy of physical education (e.g., Anatomy, Kinesiology, Nutrition) do not count toward the tally.

[6] Courses on the Latin roots of medical terminology are not counted here since the focus is on vocabulary rather than literacy or fluency.

[7] See, e.g., Mike Kalin, “The Crisis in the Humanities: A Self-Inflicted Wound?” Independent School 76/2 (2017): 40–44; James C. Hearn and Andrew S. Belasco, “Commitment to the Core: A Longitudinal Analysis of Humanities Degree Production in Four-Year Colleges,” Journal of Higher Education 86/3 (2015): 387–416; David Lea, “The Future of the Humanities in Today’s Financial Markets,” Educational Theory 64/3 (2014): 261–83.

Sodom, Gibeah, and Shechem: Responses to Rape in Genesis

In my last post, I featured a video questioning the traditional reading of Genesis 19 where Sodom is destroyed. One thing that video highlights is the similarity of Genesis 19 to Judges 19 as stories about rape, not homosexuality or heterosexuality for that matter. Here I want to unpack those similarities a bit, and draw comparisons to a third story: The rape of Dinah in Genesis 34.

To recap in broad strokes: in Genesis 19, two angels travel to Sodom to see whether they are as sinful as God has heard (we don’t know how they are sinful from Genesis, although Ezekiel claims it is mistreatment of the poor, not dudes dating dudes). They stay with Lot, and the people of Sodom appear at Lot’s door demanding to know his guests (19:5). “To know” is a biblical euphemism for phallic penetration, so a mob demands to rape Lot’s guests, who again are not men, but angels. The angels remove Lot and his daughters from Sodom and destroy the city, wiping out the entire people.

Judges 19 often draws comparisons to Genesis 19, and for good reason. Here a Levite travels to the Benjaminite town of Gibeah on his way back from collecting his second-class wife, who had left him and returned to her father. So the Levite is a stranger there in Gibeah. The people of the town appear and demand to know the Levite (19:22), again threatening sexual assault. The Levite instead tosses his wife out the door, where she is raped through the night and left to die on the threshold in the morning. The Levite marshals the other 12 tribes to attack Benjamin, which they do, nearly wiping out the entire people. For Gibeah, it is not “nearly.” “The troops in ambush rushed quickly upon Gibeah. Then they put the whole city to the sword” (Judges 20:37). So we have another story where two strangers come to a town, the locals sexually assault them (or threaten one and succeed with the other), and the town is destroyed by a holy group — the people of Israel.

More often overlooked is the story of Dinah in Genesis 34. Here again, Israel and his family travel to a foreign town, where a prince named Shechem rapes her. This one is a bit different in that they do not ambush Israel’s family, and Dinah is not gang raped. Still though, the sons of Israel trick Shechem and his men into getting circumcised, and while they recover, two of them, Simeon and Levi (like the two angels in Gen 19, or like the Levite in Judges 19) kill all of them. “Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came against the city unawares, and killed all the males. They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away” (Gen 34:25-26).

So we have three stories where foreigners come to a town, they are sexually assaulted, and the town is wiped out as a result. It is often pointed out that the story of Sodom reads as a mythologized version of the story of Gibeah: swap out the real city of Gibeah with the mythological city of Sodom (a name that means “burnt” – not a likely name to give your own city, but an apt one to give a city in a myth where it is burnt to the ground), swap the holy Levite and his wife for two mythological figures (the angels), and swap an at least believable war for destruction by flying, mythological beasts, and you have Genesis 19. Dinah’s story is not as easily mapped onto Sodom, but there is a similar core — and a more similar ending, where two holy figures somehow manage to wipe out an entire city in one go.

The presence of these two stories highlights two things.

First, reading Sodom as a story about homosexuality is especially forced. In Dinah, we have a story where the male ruler of a people rapes a woman, and God’s chosen people wipe his people out. Yet no one connects this purely heterosocial assault to heterosexuality. They don’t argue that God hates straight people, or that Israel hated straight people. Instead, they recognize that rape is bad. The gender dynamics of the situation, that a man rapes a woman, are beside the point. In Gibeah, we have the threat of homosocial rape and the actual commission of heterosocial rape — so a sort of bisexual situation at best — yet no one says God hates bisexuals. And since the men rape the woman in the end, it is notable that no one claims that heterosexuality is bad, only that heterosocial gang rape is bad. I agree. But in the case of Sodom, the threat of apparent homosocial gang rape (the “men” are not actually men — they’re angels, a different species) becomes an excuse to claim that God hates gay people, that God kills gay people. This is dramatically inconsistent.

Second, the through-line in these stories is not the homosocial gender dynamics, but the threat of sexual assault on foreigners as an expression of xenophobia. It doesn’t matter whether a woman appears, a man and a woman, or two (apparent) men, ancient Israelites were evidently concerned about entering a foreign city and being sexually assaulted by men as foreigners. I have no idea how common this event would be, but it is horrific, and one understands their concern. Xenophobia seems to have been a real threat, and the response is extreme. In all three cases, the town is wiped out. Again, it is unlikely this was a common event, more of a wish fulfillment or revenge fantasy. But the Hebrew Bible continually denounces violent attacks on foreigners, always siding with the foreigners. That I can think of, there are no stories where foreigners come to visit Israel and the Israelites sexually assault them to send a message about stepping on their land. In fact, Israelites are encouraged to welcome strangers because they were once foreigners in Egypt. That anti-xenophobic through-line seems to be lost on the most avid re-tellers of the destruction of Sodom, who eagerly denounce homosexuality while exhibiting higher rates of xenophobia and racism.