The Prohibitive (?) Cost of Biblical Studies (in Illinois)

As someone who teaches religion and who specializes in biblical studies, I perceive a great importance in learning to read the Bible critically. Then again, teachers always think their subject is important. Yet putting aside the religious significance of the Bible among most North American Christianities, its impact reaches beyond these communities. The Bible has incredible rhetorical weight in discussing social and legal issues.

For example, in recent efforts to enact “religious liberty” laws, i.e. laws that allow (mainly) Christians to discriminate against LGBTQ people, this discrimination has been defended by claiming that some people behave this way only because the Bible tells them to. Few point to specific passages that require a Christian to deny goods and services to people who sin—or at least commit a sin that also serves as a social boundary marker for their community (much less effort has been put toward denying goods and services to adulterers or divorcé(e)s or unwed fathers or gossips or slanderers or…)—because most people just assume that the people citing the Bible know what they’re talking about. 1 Corinthians 8 has been pointed to (http://religionnews.com/2014/02/26/bible-prohibit-providing-services-sex-weddings-theologians-weigh/), but this passage has to do with eating meat from an animal previously sacrificed to another god, not vending goods to homosexuals or any other group (more on this in a future post). It has been rightly found to be a misapplication of the text by Evangelical scholars, but this misses the point: invoking the Bible shields your beliefs/practices from outright criticism, and due to the general ignorance of what is actually in the Bible, and the inexperience of the public in reading it, one can simply say “Bible” and trust that only Christian religious leaders and Bible nerds (like me) will bother looking it up.

The Bible has been used to justify the absence of environmental policies (after all this is God’s creation—he’ll protect it, right?), to support or to undermine public education, to fight against more inclusive marriage laws, to fight against the abolition of slavery and also to fight for it. Our elected officials continue to swear on Bibles, and even a thrice-married adulterer felt compelled to cite a verse from “two Corinthians” when he entered into politics.

With the Bible being such a culturally influential set of writings, its critical study is well worth our time, energy, and money. Understanding the content of the Bible (there’s nothing in there about abortion?!?), the cultural milieu in which it was written (limiting divorce protects women from impoverishment?!?), and the rhetorical arguments of the Bible (Paul chastises his audience for judging others after criticizing homosexual practices?!?) would help to put some of these public uses and abuses of the Bible into perspective. This would be useful for anyone in American society, whether Christian or not — reading the Bible does not need to be a devotional exercise.

A question I want to explore here, though, is: who even has access to a cursory introduction to the critical study of the Bible in an academic setting? Not: who takes advantage of such an opportunity, but who even can enroll (often voluntarily) in a critical course on the Bible should they choose to do so.

I want to look at students enrolled in a college or university that offers a critical course in biblical studies (or BS, versus schools that have no biblical studies, or NBS), and I want to use Illinois as my sample area.

  • Around 86% of Illinois high school students get a diploma. Some of the remaining 14% will get a GED, but the odds of them seeking higher education is relatively low. Therefore, the odds of them ever having access to the critical study of the Bible is also low.
  • At least in 2010 (http://www.higheredinfo.org/dbrowser/?year=2010&level=nation&mode=data&state=0&submeasure=63), 58.7% of Illinois high school graduates went directly to college. A significant portion of the remaining 41.3% will go to college at some later time, but the probability falls again that they will ever have access to the critical study of the Bible in an academic setting.

So roughly half of Illinois’ young people will pursue higher education out of the gate, with the other half much less likely to be in an academic environment again. There are a number of barriers to going to college, and I am not arguing that it should be a universal requirement. Far from it. But one of the major barriers is the cost, and this is what I want to look at in more detail: what are the costs of biblical studies specifically? Is the cost of gaining access to this study a barrier in itself?

I looked at 62 colleges and universities in Illinois that enroll undergraduate students (if you’re going for a graduate degree in biblical studies or theology, access doesn’t seem to be an issue for you in the way I mean it here). I omitted technical/vocational schools, and I omitted schools like Moody Bible Institute because, again, access is not the issue for someone pursuing a pastoral career and who wants to study the Bible devotionally, not critically. I’m concerned with typical college students pursuing any number of unrelated degrees who might benefit from a course in biblical studies.

The results show that cost is a significant barrier to access, even for college students:

  • Half the colleges and universities in Illinois (31/62) offer at least one critical course in biblical studies taught by a biblical scholar. That’s rather impressive to me, and I suspect it’s a higher proportion than most states. There were three schools with “Bible as/in Literature” courses taught by English professors which I did not include in this category, although an argument could be made that paying attention to the composition and rhetoric of some biblical texts would still be beneficial and perhaps more attractive to students who were afraid they would be preached to for a whole semester.
  • The average cost of tuition and mandatory fees for one year of full-time enrollment overall was $23,519.11. Of course financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants offsets this cost at many of the institutions surveyed, and a more thorough study would have to take that into account. However, such a cost may prove to be a barrier to someone considering enrollment who was not aware of funding opportunities (especially first-generation students), was not confident (s)he would get them, or who was not willing to take out loans of this size.
  • The average cost of attending a BS was $30,130.91, almost seven thousand dollars more than average! Meanwhile, the average cost of NBS was $16,907.30, roughly 56% of the cost of attending a BS, or over $13,000 less expensive on average. For a four-year degree (rarer and rarer…), one has to be willing to spend (on average) an additional $52,000 to have the privilege to study the Bible critically with a trained biblical scholar. A greater proportion of BS schools are private (Christian) schools, whereas state-funded schools and two-year colleges are much less likely to teach biblical studies. Right now I teach at Loyola University Chicago in a department I am quite proud of. Loyola is the fourth most expensive BS school (more expensive than any NBS schools), which costs $44,847 in tuition and fees per year. That’s over $21,000 more than the average Illinois school.

cost

The top row represents tuitions at NBS schools, with the quartiles and median marked. The box represents the middle 50% of schools. The bottom row represents tuitions at BS schools.

  • These additional costs correlate with much lower enrollment. The average enrollment at a BS is 5,841 total undergraduates, while at an NBS it is 12,246 undergraduates. So 67.7% of Illinois undergraduates attend an NBS rather than a BS.
  • Taking enrollment into account helps to calculate the average tuition for a BS student (not institution), which is $25,470.70. Yet the average tuition for an NBS student goes down to $8,985.91, with an overall average of $14,426.20. (This also makes the cost for Loyola students paying full tuition over $30,000 more than the average Illinois student per year). These numbers are lower than the average per institution because lower-cost schools tend to have higher enrollment. What this means is that attending a BS costs the average student more than $16,000 extra to attend per year, or an additional $64,000 to get a four-year degree.

Less than a third of Illinois students are enrolled in a college or university that even teaches the critical study of the Bible. Once they’re at one, there is no guarantee that they will take such a course. At some schools, it is a requirement. But it is a 100-level course, for example, at Dominican University but not required, although it satisfies a core requirement. Intro to Old Testament or New Testament are 200-level courses at Loyola and are not required, and most students will take Intro to Theology or Intro to Religious Studies (the course I usually teach) to satisfy their core requirement. (That is why there are four times as many sections of THEO 100 this semester as there are sections of OT and NT combined).

So this minority of students will have access to a course in biblical studies, but it is unlikely that they will take one, meaning only a tiny portion of Illinois residents will learn to read the Bible critically and academically in any capacity. Although the numbers would vary to an extent, I suspect that similarly tiny fractions of students will ever take a course in theology or ethics, either.

Biblical studies seems to be pricing itself out of relevance. Put another way, critical biblical studies is a privilege of the wealthy and the upwardly mobile. Students who have to make tight fiscal decisions and attend a less expensive college, at least while completing gen ed requirements, will most likely never take a course in biblical studies. As higher education is reimagined more and more as vocational training, and as the cost to (economic) benefit ratio of attending college declines, we run the risk of becoming even more elitist, even more irrelevant.

Summary:*

Biblical Studies No Biblical Studies Overall
Total Enrollment 181,073 379,618 560,691
Avg. Enrollment 5,841 12,246 9,043
Avg. Cost/Inst. $30,130.91 $16,907.30 $23,519.11
Avg. Cost/Stud. $25,470.70 $8,985.91 $14,426.20

* Some of this data may be out of date — college websites are notoriously difficult to navigate, and some schools do not publicly share tuition data without the submission of personal information to the school. So these numbers should be taken as approximate, although it is unlikely that any updated information would greatly influence the summary data.

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God Hates Bros, or: Adam and Eve, not Adam and his Brother, Steve

At some point in the 20th Century, the relationship of Adam and Eve came to be viewed more popularly by certain Western, conservative Christians and Jews as a model for all people in a new way. In Genesis 2, God creates the minimum number and configuration of humans needed to procreate, and this fact was taken to mean that any other number or configuration within sexual relationships was against God’s plan. “It’s Adam and Eve,” we were told, “not Adam and Steve.” Presumably Hannah and Eve were left to their own devices. Granted, according to some traditional readings sexuality only entered Adam and Eve’s relationship after they ate from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Bad, realized they were naked, and God cursed them to make babies together (Gen 3:16-17). In more monastic circles, this is taken as evidence that sexuality itself is bad and we must return to a prelapsarian, asexual state (hence all those celibate monks). Nonetheless, the fine points of when exactly God planned to have Adam and Eve get it on were left behind to focus on what mattered (or what was rhetorically useful): we can allow only one man and one woman in sexual congress, all evidence of polygamy in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament to the contrary. Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, became the model for all sexual unions. Specifically, had God wanted Adam to have a boyfriend, God would have created one for him. Or so the logic goes.

But there is another even more common relationship that Adam did not participate in: Adam never had a brother. By the above logic, this implies that God never wanted men to have brothers. Adam certainly did not need a brother in order to engage in his “marriage” to Eve (although having one might have added some much-needed diversity to his descendants’ gene pool). Furthermore, unlike that one man/one woman nonsense, the evidence that God disapproves of brothers actually continues throughout the Bible.

Consider the very first brothers: Cain kills Abel. The good replacement kid (but unfortunately still a brother), Seth, has to have children with his sisters (or his mother, but let’s hope that’s not the case). No, that plural “sisters” is not a typo. Merely taken literally, multiple cases of polygamous incest are virtually required by the situation that God puts Adam and Eve in when God creates only two people. If Adam and Eve are the model, this is the path they take us down.

Noah has three sons who join their father in the ark. All of the descendants of the evil brother Cain will die in the flood, so this is a chance for the world to get a fresh start. But we know something bad is coming as soon as Noah allows brothers on the boat! When the brother-begetting Noah gets drunk, Ham looks at his father’s nakedness (Gen 9:22). It isn’t clear whether “his nakedness” means Ham is having a go at his father or his mother, but whatever the case, it’s incestuous and it gets all of his descendants cursed like Cain’s. Shem, the oldest son, is the ancestor of the Israelites, God’s people (hence the term S(h)emites). Had Noah just stopped with one male offspring, you know, as God intended, Ham would not have been there to do anything with his father’s “nakedness.” Shem would start repopulating, producing a world full of righteous (if a bit inbred) people. People, that is, untempted into idolatry and God knows what else by the Canaanites who are descended from Ham, Shem’s sexually aggressive brother.

Abraham is also one of three brothers. Thankfully one of them dies, and the other one is left behind when God calls Abraham to leave home. The message couldn’t be clearer: God wants to make a great people that will be a blessing to all nations, and the first thing God does is ask Abraham to get away from his brother! Unfortunately, Abraham brings along his nephew, Lot. This son of a brother will choose Sodom over the future land of Israel (Gen 13:10-13) and father two nations of his own… with his daughters (Gen 19:30-38). God is clearly trying to tell us that brotherhood leads to incest. It couldn’t be more obvious.

Abraham eventually has two sons with two women: Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael is banished, and God’s angel predicts that he will be a wild ass of a man with his hand against his brothers (Gen 16:11).

Isaac has two sons: Esau and Jacob. Jacob extorts his brother out of his inheritance and deceives a blind Isaac into giving it to him – and he’s the one we’re rooting for! So Esau tries to kill Jacob. What else can you expect from brothers?

Jacob has 13 sons by four wives. Eleven of them try to kill their brother, Joseph. Yet in the middle of their plan they chicken out and sell him to… Ishmaelites! Way to go, Abraham. Moses’ brother, Aaron, agrees to commit idolatry by making a Golden Calf. Samuel is called to serve God because two brothers, Hophni and Phineas, are wicked priests stealing from the people (Samuel’s two sons aren’t much better). David fathers several brothers, one (Absalom) who kills another (Amnon) after he rapes their sister. Absalom is later killed by his father, and another (Adonijah) is taken out by Solomon, his little brother. See what trouble having multiple boys in one house causes? More brothers, more incest and violence – undeniably.

The truth of the evil inherent in brotherhood does not cease to be laid bare in the Christian Bible either. Jesus, it must be remembered, is the only begotten Son of God (John 1:18; 3:16). Well, at least on his Father’s side. It seems he had some half-brothers through his mother (or step-brothers if you’re Catholic). These brothers accuse him of being crazy (Mark 3:21, 32) and encourage him to go up to Jerusalem, not because they believe in him (they don’t, John 7:5) but probably because the Jerusalemites want to kill him (John 7:2). But those sordid advocates of two men sharing the same parents might ask: aren’t we told that anyone who hates his brother is in darkness, a liar and a murderer (1 John 2:9, 11; 3:15; 4:20)? Well, one might respond, this indicates our spiritual brothers and sisters, fellow children of God not children of the same parents (just threw up in my mouth a little…). “Brothers,” not brothers. Regarding our merely material brothers, Jesus himself says that anyone who doesn’t hate his brother cannot be his disciple (Luke 14:26).

The plain sense of Scripture clearly condemns the evil of… homogeneity? Let’s just say “brotherhood.” Brothers are a constant source of violence and impropriety in the Bible. It isn’t just that Adam has no brothers, which by the logic of the “Adam and Steve” argument is evidence enough of the evils of brotherhood. The Bible underlines this “truth” nearly every time a set of brothers appears, much more often than for homosexuals who get a couple of laws in Leviticus (well, at least men into anal sex, Lev 18:22; 20:13) and some poo-pooing by Paul (Rom 1:18-32) to give his Roman audience a false sense of security before laying into them too for judging others (Rom 2:1-16). Incidentally that particular rhetorical juxtaposition is often lost on people who only bring up Paul to judge others. If the story of Adam and Eve compels us to reject outright the desire of two people of the same gender/sex to have an intimate relationship, then the call of “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” should likewise ring out to decry the defilement of two men coming from the same bed, not just in it.

Yet we do not cringe when the doctor tells us we’re having a second boy, or turn our noses up as parents walk by with a gaggle of sons. This is because we accept brothers as a naturally occurring, predictable aspect of human society. Brothers can come with their own problems, but we find ways of dealing with them. We don’t make brothers pretend they’re really cousins – or “just friends” – and we don’t look through the Bible for evidence that brothers are an inherent evil. We don’t find it because we don’t look for it, not the other way around.

There are many aspects of the Genesis narrative to which we do not aspire, beginning with Adam having children with someone who is ostensibly his twin sister and continuing with murder and (divinely mandated) incest afterward. The Genesis narrative is a myth that gives meaning to aspects of our existence. Adam and Eve cover many of these aspects, from procreation and the empirical fact of humanity’s diverse sexes (although presented simplistically here as binary, male and female), to culturally-conditioned, patriarchal norms and theological points about our dependence on God. What it does not do is exhaust all of the relationships that are possible for all people. Wanting it to do so is nonsensical and dangerous. “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” is simply a poor argument that should be put away if Christians (and Jews) want to have a mature and yes, even biblical discussion about homosexual relationships.