Excellent Address of the Problems with the Academic Field of Humanities

A friend shared this on facebook, and I wanted to share it here (and there). The author and winner of the Truman Capote Award, Kevin Birmingham, discusses the impact of adjunctification on scholarship – in his case in literature, but many of the patterns he notes occur also in biblical and theological studies.

Working at more than one school? Check. (Up to three at a time so far).

Median pay of $2,700 per course? Check. (Although Loyola Chicago does pay more and goes out of its way to create a good environment for its adjuncts, at least in theology).

Donations going to athletics rather than faculty? Not at my current schools, but as a graduate of a Big Ten school (MSU) and an SEC school (UGA), I’ve definitely seen it — Saturdays where the library was not open because they could not afford the staff to manage a flood of drunk football fans; religion classes taught in uncomfortably small, outdated classrooms while the university spends thousands repairing the grounds after tailgating. Most athletic programs lose money for the school, and even with a high profit football program like UGA or MSU, they yield a net loss when the money is distributed to other athletic programs and infrastructure. They will never want for money due to a simple restriction of flow: athletic money is athletic money, but academic money is not just academic money — it’s also athletic money when the football team (or basketball team) needs it. The counter-argument is that athletics draws in undergrads in a competitive market and alumni donations (when they are not made directly to the athletic department). I would appreciate greater transparency on this, though, and greater scholarly critique.

All of this warrants further discussion down the line, but the end result is that the current career model in the humanities depends on producing too many PhDs in the field, only training them/encouraging them into faculty positions which there won’t be enough of, then building a surplus pool of adjuncts who are cheap and who can be let go at a moment’s notice if the school needs to shift money away from the department. This is not accidental or simply the result of a bad economy (10 years ago). While I knew this going in, I’m also lucky to have other options. Few others are, and the more undergrads and grad students know about the academic field before they spend the years and money becoming qualified to work in it, the better.

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The Cost of Philosophy (in Illinois)

Since nothing else of note is going on today…

Earlier I looked at the availability of biblical studies at colleges and universities in Illinois. 31 of the 62 schools I surveyed offered courses in biblical studies as part of a religion or theology department. However, since these 31 schools are often smaller, private schools, only 32% of students in Illinois are in a position to actually take a course in biblical studies.

Today I want to compare these results with another field: Philosophy. This subject would probably be a better point of comparison for theology proper, but still a fair point of comparison with biblical studies, also in the humanities.

Here is what I found:

 

  Philosophy (Bible)
Schools offering philosophy courses 60 (96.8%) 31 (50%)
Percent of students at these schools 99.03% 32.30%
Schools offering philosophy majors 40 (64.5%) N/A
Percent of students at these schools 44.07% N/A
Ave. cost/school with philosophy courses $23,482.41 $30,130.91
Ave. cost/school without philosophy courses $24,620.00 $16,907.30
Ave. cost/student at schools with phil. $13,945.81 $25,470.70
Ave. cost/student at schools without phil. $31,651.91 $8,985.91

What this means:

  • All but two schools offer at least a course in philosophy, and almost 2/3 offer a philosophy major.
  • Since those two schools are rather small (less than 6,000 undergrads combined), over 99% of students in Illinois can take a philosophy course. However, since schools offering philosophy majors also tend to be on the small end, only 44% of students can major in philosophy.
  • Schools that offer philosophy courses are actually less expensive than schools that don’t, although the difference is not significant. The same goes for average cost per student, where avoiding philosophy is almost $18,000 more expensive! Cost is simply not a barrier to studying philosophy in the way that it is for biblical studies and theology.

Philosophy as a field has its own issues, and apparently they have been moving toward more non-tenure track positions for a while now. But these positions are still full-time, and at any rate more students have access to philosophy, whether it is historical philosophy, logic, or what have you.

While students may still gripe about taking a philosophy course if they are not interested, it is much less likely that people will question whether a college/university should offer these courses. Although the Bible influences contemporary thought to a similar if not greater extent than ancient and pre-modern philosophies, there is an uncritical assumption that the theological, ethical, and philosophical ideas of, say, Aristotle are more relevant to students than the theological, ethical, and philosophical ideas of Isaiah, or John, or Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas. If biblical scholars and theologians are not willing to question that assumption, then they participate in their own marginalization.

Food, Sex, and the Changing Rules for Both in Christianity

Since this has come up a couple times already, and in response to the apparent use of 1 Corinthians 8 to support discrimination against LGBTQ people…

Sex and Food

So I want to say something about how American Christianity addresses non-normative sexualities, but in order to do that I am going to say something about food.

This may seem like taking the long way around the barn, but it is at least a small barn. After all if your inner eighth grader is anything like mine, he will point out that both discussions are to an extent about what is proper to put in your mouth. But the association goes back to the Bible. Paul discusses marriage, chastity, and prostitution (1 Cor. 6-7) just before he turns to the etiquette of eating food that had been previously sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8-10). John of Patmos also associates eating “idol meat” with porneia (Rev 2:14, 20, i.e. sexual immorality, not necessarily fornication), as does the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15).

Food is necessary to continue our own lives and sex is necessary to continue human life, but both have the capacity to make us impure, unclean, unholy, depending not only on what we put in our mouths, but when, where, and with whom we do it. Food etiquette gets extensive treatment in the New Testament, and this is in part because some followers of Jesus decided not to care about many of the restrictions on food that they had inherited from their Jewish founders and their Gentile cultures. They attempted to leave these restrictions behind in favor of unity among the assembly of believers and a focus on what they considered more important matters like God, Christ, living with the Spirit, and the well-being of the community.

This is not to say that Jews or pagan Gentiles did not already care about God or the well-being of their communities – indeed eating the right things with the right people was a way that both maintained the well-being of their communities. But whereas Gentile cultures fostered social or civic cohesion by eating certain meals in honor of certain gods at certain times, and Jews fostered social cohesion by maintaining certain dietary practices, some Christ-following groups seem to have formed social cohesion by avoiding meals in honor of other gods while also ignoring both Jewish dietary rules and Gentile social etiquette. Christ-followers could be disruptive and weird because they were a community that ate together in one house, and they apparently ate whatever was served.

This is not a minor step. It is important to realize how much the followers of Jesus were asking of their congregants – especially their Jewish ones – when they casually “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). Jesus’ brother, James, seems to have had some trouble giving up those rules (Gal 2:11-14). This is not to say that all Jews everywhere were uniformly disgusted by non-kosher food. One certainly gets the impression, when the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (a contemporary of Jesus) discusses pig’s flesh as the “most succulent of meats” which must be avoided only to build self-control (Spec. 4.100-1), that this dude’s had a pork chop and liked it.

But people have their taboos. Many Americans would get physically ill at the thought of eating a dog or a horse, and that’s without violating a contract with the Creator or betraying an idea of national identity.

Jews weren’t the only ones with food issues, though. Take this problem of meat from an animal that had previously been sacrificed to a god other than the Jewish one. The reasoning of some early Christians seems clear: the other gods don’t exist, so a priest ritually killing an animal in a temple has no impact on the meat itself. If devotees of Aphrodite or whoever have a big festival, sacrifice more animals than they can eat, and suddenly there’s a lot of cheap beef on the market, dig in! After a feast, there might be literally tons of meat on the market that needed to go quickly – no refrigeration and a warm environment are a bad combination. The price suddenly plummets. If you’re hosting a big meal, say, on Sunday, it makes sense to take advantage of the low prices.

But almost all Christians (when Paul was writing) were converts. Some Jews among them might be uncomfortable with eating the idol meat because of taboos in Jewish culture. But some of the people who had been the ones sacrificing those same animals up until recently might also be a bit squeamish about eating it. Imagine a Roman Catholic converting and then having people casually drink sacramental wine at the new communal meal because they found it cheap. Sure, he no longer believes that this is the blood of Christ, but wouldn’t he be a bit uncomfortable? Would he miss the experience of Holy Communion? What if he had had a traumatic separation from the Church as he joined the new sect – would he be a bit more likely to view the wine as evil, unclean, defiling in some way?

In this context, it is interesting to note how Paul addresses the situation. Keep in mind that Paul is himself a diaspora Jew who had apparently trained as a Pharisee. We would expect him to take a hard line on this issue, just as the Jerusalem Christians do and as John of Patmos does when writing to nearby churches. Yet Paul takes a remarkably nuanced approach, one that appeals to relationships at every level.

Relationships

What if you are at a dinner hosted by a friend and your friend serves meat? Should you ask where it came from and risk causing offense? No, don’t bother asking. The meat is still meat. The gods it was sacrificed to aren’t real anyway, and you risk alienating the Christian community from outsiders. But this is to look outward. What if there is a Christian in attendance who warns you that you are eating idol food? Then you should refrain from eating it – not because the meat itself can harm you but because eating it can harm your relationship with a fellow Christian. You refrain for the sake of the relationship until the other person’s understanding is strengthened, developed, matured, and he or she at least won’t raise a stink over a “non-issue” anymore.

What if someone invites you to dinner at a temple? A wealthy investor comes to town and needs to hire some skilled labor; he may well host a dinner at the temple – he sacrifices a lamb, the priests take a leg and serve the rest to his guests. You didn’t sacrifice the lamb, but there you are in a temple eating the sacrificed food. Not attending the dinner may mean losing a great deal of work. But what if someone sees you eating in the temple? What if that someone spent her life attending services at that temple, sacrificing to that god? If it’s ok that you are doing it, wouldn’t it be ok if she does it too? Worship is a lifelong practice, a habit that can be difficult to break. Once she stops going to a temple, she might miss the smells, the feel, the space and the sense of veneration it inspires. What would it hurt to go back now and then?

Exclusive Relationships

To answer this, Paul takes one hard line: you may absolutely not sacrifice to other gods! But note why this is so, because it comes back to this issue of relationships. After all, other gods don’t exist. At most there is a demon posing as a god. Sacrificing to the demon accomplishes nothing in itself other than to establish a relationship of worship with the demon, a relationship you are only supposed to have with God and Christ. To enter into another relationship with a demon outside of your relationship with Christ – or to enter into one with the, say, Artemis-worshiping community outside of your relationship with the Christ-worshiping community – is to violate the relationships you should be maintaining, with Christ and with other Christians. You can have your family and business relationships with anyone you want, but the relationship of worship is exclusive. That is why it is so often described as a marriage in the Bible: you are being unfaithful in both senses. If eating a dinner in a temple, a dinner you might know has nothing to do with the god, tempts others into breaking their relationship with Christ and with the community then you have done real harm. Harm beyond missing out on some work. If this is the case (and perhaps there are times when it might not be), then you should avoid eating the idol meat in the temple.

In each case the substance itself is not the issue. The act of eating it is not the issue. Rather Paul concentrates on relationships within the community and with Christ as greater than concerns over purity. Idol meat poses no direct threat, no matter how filthy, unclean, defiled, and satanic some members of the community think it is. What you put in your mouth is not the point; relationships are.

A New Controversy over “Meat”

Paul’s position in the debate over idol meat is instructive, I think, in the current debate over non-normative sexual relationships. For some Christians it is not that a loving sexual relationship between two adults is in itself wrong, except when those adults happen to be of the “wrong” gender configuration. As with meat that is no different from any other meat save some words spoken over it by a priest, the same relationships that would be celebrated in most circumstances (boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands and wives) are here viewed as filthy, unclean, defiled, even satanic.

The people who think this way are bound by the ethics and social attitudes they’ve inherited and that predate their Christianity, historically and personally: Paul likely inherited his negative views of homosexual behavior from Palestinian Judaism and from the pagan philosophy of Stoicism, and most children learn it from their surroundings well before they can read or understand the Bible. All over we hear the gagging sound of some Christians as they think about what others might be putting in their mouths. This leads them to kick their recently outed (Christian) children out of their homes or to create such a hostile environment that the children run away. How many of these families are torn apart because “I was raised to think that’s icky”? How many young men and women leave a church that sides with those who would shun them, spit on them, assault them, or legislate against them? How many find statements like “God is love” empty when all this hate is credited to God?

A daughter’s sexual relationship with another woman is not in competition with the (presumably non-sexual) relationship she has with a mom or dad. Nor does it compete with a relationship of worship that she has with God. Should our children’s particular taste in meat sever or strengthen the relationships we have with them? If Christ’s death allows us to value our relationships with each other over and above the foods we eat, if in Christ there really is neither Jew nor Gentile (so pass the ham and cheese?), no male and female, then what is important would seem not to be our naughty bits but the kinds of loving relationships we build with each other. If Paul’s discussion of food laws is instructive at all in a contemporary Western context, then it may urge us to consider the importance of our relationships with each other even before considering whether a certain behavior is in line with the taboos we’ve inherited.

There are Christian parents who have completely disowned their children for admitting that they will only find romantic love with a person their parents wouldn’t happen to choose. Perhaps if those parents considered their – yes, Christian – responsibility to maintain a loving relationship with them, they might still come to the same conclusion, that disowning their children was the right thing to do. But as more churches lose young congregants because they just can’t understand why the pastor gets so upset over the dating habits of people he’s never met, and as adolescent Christians are made homeless and prostituted when they are shoved out of their homes, communities, and churches because their parents and religious leaders can’t imagine enjoying sex with the partners they’ve chosen, it is perhaps worth considering which is more important: maintaining relationships within families and church communities, or maintaining a culturally inherited distaste for certain flavors of meat.

The Cost of Biblical Studies (in Georgia)

I received an MA in Religion, with a focus on biblical studies, from a public university: the University of Georgia. When I looked at public colleges and universities in Illinois, only three offered a critical course on the Bible taught within a religion department (Illinois State University, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, and Western Illinois University). So I wanted to look at whether a state lint-deep in the Bible belt would offset the cost of biblical studies by offering courses in biblical studies at public universities.

The difference between private and public tuition in Georgia is amplified by the HOPE scholarship, a state lottery-funded scholarship that pays 90% of tuition for students who maintain a B average or higher. Maybe the difference in cost between schools with biblical studies (BS) and non-biblical studies schools (NBS) would not be as drastic as it is in Illinois. As it turns out, while the average cost of higher education in Georgia is lower than in Illinois, the differences in cost are not much better in Georgia. Biblical studies remain accessible to a privileged minority.

Average Cost per School

I looked at 56 colleges and universities in Georgia, 27 of which (48.2%) offered courses in biblical studies (already lower access compared to Illinois, where half the schools were BS):

  • Average cost per school: $15,469.36            ($13,398.66 with HOPE)
  • Average cost per BS school: $22,381.22      ($21,359.76 with HOPE)
  • Average cost per NBS school: $9,034.17     ($5,986.61 with HOPE)

So ignoring HOPE, BS schools were more than $13,000 more per year than NBS schools, a difference similar to Illinois. Factoring in the HOPE scholarship, the difference jumped to more than $15,000 more per year.

Average Cost per Student

Students tend to flock to schools funded by HOPE, most of which do not offer biblical studies. However four schools with high enrollment do offer biblical studies of some sort: Georgia State University (32,082 undergrads), University of Georgia (27,547 undergrads), Georgia Southern University (18,005 undergrads), and Valdosta State University (11,375 undergrads). That means that roughly 37% of students at HOPE-eligible schools have access to biblical studies. Still, these are four of the more expensive public schools in Georgia, so they don’t help to offset the cost as dramatically as one might think:

  • Average cost per student: $10,812.03            ($6,446.58 with HOPE)
  • Average cost per BS student: $16,227.15      ($11,009.88 with HOPE)
  • Average cost per NBS student: $6,642.61    ($2,933.08 with HOPE)

The difference between BS and NBS students here is not as high as in Illinois, but still almost $10,000 per year without considering HOPE, and over $8,000 factoring it in.

Put a different way, without HOPE the average BS student pays roughly 2.4 times as much to attend college than an NBS student. With HOPE, a BS student pays more than 3.75 times as much to attend school than an NBS student.

Conclusion

Even though higher education in Georgia is cheaper than in Illinois and offers significant access to publicly funded biblical studies, it is still a privilege of those willing (and able) to pay thousands more for school. Most schools do not offer any courses in biblical studies, so most students, 56%, do not attend a school that offers them. A higher percentage of students may take a biblical studies course at some point in Georgia than in Illinois, but on average only with significantly greater investment. Biblical studies, even in the heart of the Bible belt and with a state scholarship helping to fund four universities offering BS, is a privilege of those who can afford it.

The Bible as a Magical Text among the Creationists

Some of us have a tendency to obsess over minor details in the wording the biblical texts. I have no problem with this. To outsiders, i.e. people who do not compulsively read the Bible whether Christian, Jewish, or otherwise, this can all seem arcane and at risk of missing the forest for the trees. But the Bible is an important text. In some circles authorship is credited to God (although to my knowledge God has not claimed authorship himself), and so the words that God chose to communicate with humanity are important spiritual artifacts.

The connection many Jews have to these words is of a different sort to that which most Christians have. Many Jews speak and read modern Hebrew, a good number as a first language. When they read the Bible, they hear the traditional text in its own words and in a language that is at least an early version of one they speak. Greek-speaking Christians have a comparable connection to the New Testament.

For most Christians, however, to contemplate the Bible is not to contemplate its words but their meaning as interpreted through translation into another language. The fact that the first recipients of the Word spoke Hebrew or Aramaic and the later recipients spoke a form of common Greek is incidental to the message of the Bible, its meaning. Those languages were simply the medium through which the message was delivered. We don’t obsess over the particles of air that conducted the sound waves emitting from Jesus’ mouth, why obsess over the particular vibrations they caused?

The prophets, historians, and songwriters of Israel happened to speak Hebrew, so they wrote in Hebrew. The evangelists and letter-writers of the New Testament spoke Greek and lived in a world where Greek was a common language of the Roman Empire, and so they wrote in Greek. No Christians I know attach any importance to the role of Greek in the creation of the New Testament. That is, Christ apparently did not wait to be incarnated until the world had a sufficient number of Greek speakers. Rather people happened to speak Greek, so the Bible was written in Greek; had they spoken Japanese, well then we’d have a Japanese Bible. The Hebrew texts had already been translated into Greek, and the New Testament texts were soon translated into Latin and Syriac and Coptic and so on without controversy.

So the New Testament was written in Greek. Even the most literalist Christians generally admit that many of its scenes took place in Aramaic. No one seems to have complained when the characters in The Passion of the Christ spoke Aramaic because it failed to match the Greek text. Sure, a degree of overconfidence in the ability to translate from one language to another without influencing the meaning underlies this, but the translation itself actually helps to shift focus away from the words towards their meaning (in whatever language).

I would argue that this, in turn, moves us away from treating the Bible as a magical text, one that we don’t need to understand in order to have power. Biblical scholars have gone to some lengths to argue that biblical prayers (such as the Lord’s Prayer) are not spells even if we are meant to benefit from them in direct appeal to a god. But if I were to teach a child the Lord’s Prayer in Greek without telling her its meaning, then a spell is all it would be.

Granted, Christians and Jews have overtly used the Bible as a magical object for centuries. For an example in modern-day America (at least since 1973), an exorcist waving around a well-organized pile of wood pulp with squiggles on the front that look like ‘Holy Bible’ to scare off a demon is likewise indulging in a bit of magic. A bible is just an object, and a man-made one at that. Treating the object as powerful (and not its message) is magic at best, idolatry at worst.

So Hebrew and Greek are just the media through which the message was given. The words – which were not made up just for the Bible but everyday Hebrew and Greek words already being used to ask for directions, write contracts, and describe bowel movements – should not be the final focus of our attention because they are incidental, the noises and squiggles people made at the time to represent ideas. Studying these noises and squiggles is important to get at the ideas they represent, but what should be the focus are the ideas themselves. What were the biblical authors trying to say using the languages they inherited from their culture?

Now let’s turn to the mythical, cosmological, and scientific systems that we can detect in the Bible. I’ll get to Genesis in a minute, but let me give another example first. In the prologue to the Gospel of John, the children of God are described as those who were not born of bloods, but of God (John 1:13). Why the plural ‘bloods,’ haimatōn not haimatos? Because in the biological understanding of the day embryos were formed by the mixture of two bloods: the menstrual ‘blood’ of the woman (which is not strictly speaking blood but endometrial tissue) and the semen of the man, which was believed to be purified blood. Think of waves frothing in the ocean and turning white, only here a dude gets all hot and bothered, starts shaking things around, and soon he has, well, frothed up some baby juice out of his own blood. Does anyone think of semen in this way anymore? Blood and sperm cells (not to mention all of the other material in semen) are radically different in structure and genetic potential, and they have very different functions in the body. But in the ancient world, no one had ever seen a blood cell or a sperm cell (or for that matter menstrual tissue and ova) under a microscope. The ideological framework behind John’s wording here is simply out of date and evidently inaccurate.

There are perhaps three possible responses to learning this. First, one might embrace his inner fundamentalist and decide that biological science is wrong, that semen and menstrual tissue are in fact just forms of blood and that children are formed by mixing the bloods of a man and a woman.

Second, one might reject the truth of the Gospel’s assertion that we can become children of God because, whether he was inspired by the Holy Spirit or just an early Christian writing down his religious ideas, if the author can’t get basic biology right, how can we trust him on salvation?

Yet a third possibility exists. Whatever the nature of the author’s ‘inspiration,’ it seems to have been cooperative, not coercive. The author spoke common first century Greek, so he communicated ideas through that medium. No angelic language, for example, was used. The author also wanted to explain becoming a child of God in contrast to becoming a child in a normal way. His point is not that the biological understanding of his day is eternally valid. Who cares? His point is that being begotten of God is a ‘birth’ completely distinct from biological reproduction. God does not need to have sex with your mom for you to be God’s child. More to the point, you do not need to be high-born but born again, from above, of water and Spirit. You do not need to be born into the right ethnicity or gender or class to become a child of God, but to believe. The biological details are only there to highlight the contrast between the two births, not to give us a lesson in human reproduction. At that level, we can still appreciate and understand what he was trying to say.

So this Genesis thing. Let’s leave aside the fact that taking the account as a strict chronology of seven (consecutive, “24-hour” in a Newtonian sense) days was largely abandoned for centuries. The point is that it has recently resurfaced due to 1) increased literacy from public and private education that was not coupled with traditional study of the Bible, so that the most simplistic reading was made possible without the benefit of centuries of contemplation and development, and 2) the negative reaction to the success of scientific investigation. Just when people were beginning to be able to read (translated) Bibles all on their own, scientists were telling us that there is only a molten core under the surface of the earth, not Hell; that the earth took billions of years to form, not a few days; and that humans are animals made up of molecules and bound by the same laws as the rest of the universe, that we cannot simply walk back the process x number of times to arrive at our great-great-great-…-great grandparents and their creepy, inbred children.

This ‘young Earth’ position is no different than a ‘two bloods’ position. The message of the first chapter of Genesis has something to do with the order of the universe, an order credited to God’s guidance in creation over time. When humanity is created last of the living beings (in the first chapter at least—contradicted immediately in the second), two further points seem to be made. The first is that we are dependent on God and the order that God infused creation with for our existence. We are subsequent to and yet no different from the other created beings except in the second point, which is that we have a responsibility as intelligent beings to contribute to the order of creation, not to the chaos. This message tends to get lost on American readers who want to make a buck off of savaging the environment.

The implied author wanted to convey this message, and so he expressed it in a language (ancient Hebrew) and a cosmological framework that he and his audience could understand. That the author envisions a flat earth with water below it and water above it (hence rain and a blue sky) is beside the actual point, which is that the configuration of the cosmos in a way that is amenable to (human) life is accomplished through God’s guidance. The nice neighborhood is what’s important, not the ‘bowl on a plate’ cosmological model. Creation itself, not its verbal and paradigmatic description. Likewise the seven days are clearly a symbol linked to the Sabbath (cf. the 10 Commandments, Exod 20:11) meant to demonstrate the harmony of Israel’s Law with creation. Again, most of the young Earthers don’t even bother with the Sabbath.

And what if God directly inspired this text to the point that it represents a verbatim dictation of the divine Word? Well, even then communication is a two-way street. If someone speaks incredibly eloquent Russian to me, no communication will take place because I do not speak Russian. Likewise, if a physicist explains a particularly obscure theory to me in eloquent English, a language I understand, we can expect almost as little communication to take place because I do not have the background in theoretical physics to understand what she is saying. If we are quite traditional (since the text is anonymous) and literal about the book of Genesis, then we might believe that it was dictated word for word to Moses. Since Moses spoke Hebrew, God spoke Hebrew to him. Addressing him in ancient Chinese would have been counter-productive, so God met Moses on his own terms.

Similarly, God wanted to communicate to Moses certain ideas about humanity’s dependence on the order that God had created. Moses had a particular cosmological understanding that was quite common among the cultures surrounding Israel. He was also a lawgiver tasked with upholding certain traditions such as the Sabbath, and integrating the Sabbath structure into creation underlines its importance. God could communicate these important theological ideas within Moses’ ancient and common cosmology, so there was no need to correct it since the cosmology itself was not the point! God could have wasted their time giving Moses an advanced training course in thermodynamics, temporal mechanics, and a detailed lesson in geology, but that would be to miss the forest for the trees.

Furthermore, Moses was only an intermediary. He then had to communicate the message to the people of Israel, who themselves had inherited ideas of cosmology and creation. Had Moses tried to explain all of the intricacies of cosmological history to them from the big bang forward, they would have thrown their hands up and said, “Whatever nerd, I’m going back to Egypt!” It is all but certain that the theological message would have been lost. Shockingly, knowing the limitations of human understanding, God may have chosen the theological message over a science lesson. The message could be communicated well enough without teaching them a new language or a new cosmology.

So even within a very traditional framework there is no reason to dismiss scientific developments because they do not align with ancient cosmologies if one has a somewhat more nuanced understanding of how communication takes place (and a great deal more humility about human understanding in general). To treat the ancient and foreign words/paradigms of the Bible as powerful in themselves apart from their message is to treat the Bible as a magical text with all the abracadabra that works whether you know what it means or not, whether it connects to your real experience of the world or not.

Instead, the ancient, pre-biblical words were a way of conveying meaning. The same goes for ancient, pre-biblical ideologies. They are a means for conveying a new and deeper theological idea, and the theological idea should be our focus, not the ‘noise’ used to convey it. To do otherwise is to treat the Bible as a magical text with its ancient, esoteric understandings of the universe, its waters in the sky that we cannot see but must be there because the Bible says they are, the stars as angels who obey physical laws only because they’re marching in formation. The ancient cosmology is perhaps a more complex building block out of which to build a theological message than whatever words certain people spoke 3,000 years ago, but it serves the same purpose. To the same extent that Christians do not feel the need to learn and in fact speak ancient, biblical Hebrew in their daily lives, it is just as unnecessary for them to pretend that no advances in human understanding of the cosmos have occurred in over three millennia. It is far more important for them to contemplate the orderly and life-giving world that God has provided them with as they make decisions that potentially upend that order and drive our fellow creations to extinction.

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.

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.