In Defense of Scholars

I AM GRATEFUL for Ann Monroe's reflection on Jack Miles' book, God: A Biography ("Honest to God," May-June 1998). But as a professional biblical scholar I am distressed by her characterization of the profession. Monroe writes that while most thoughtful believers appreciate biblical scholars, "by those same scholars I am held in something perilously close to disdain."

Unfair! Monroe bases this claim on her visit to the 1997 Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. The SBL is an academic society, with a membership that includes people of all faiths, non-faiths, and anti-faiths. At the annual meeting, speakers expect to converse with other professionals in a largely non-confessional context.

In that light, Monroe's anecdotes provoke some suspicion on my part. After one scholar presented a technical paper on Hebrew syntax, Monroe asked her how those who don't know Hebrew could understand it. The answerù"Learn Hebrew"ùwas not an insult to laypeople. Instead, it reflected a basic fact of any profession: The gap between technical details and application can be enormous. Monroe might as well have asked an electrical engineer to explain why her home is wired as it is, without wanting to learn mathematics or physics.

Another anecdote is also instructive. One scholar was bold enough to suggest reading the Psalms as a resource for people with AIDS. Monroe remarked that people with AIDS had been doing that in her church for more than 10 years, and the scholar replied, "I'm so glad that what we espouse in theory is being done in practice." Monroe called this a "verbal pat on the shoulder." I wonder. Imagine the scholar who writes about Psalms and people with AIDS: Almost certainly he was speaking out of personal, passionate experience in ministry. This person had put such experience into theory, worked through its implications, and presented it for professional criticism. Rather than thank him for his contribution and offer additional insights from her own ministry, Monroe essentially says, "Sure, but we already knew that." And the scholar is being arrogant?

The bottom line is that few biblical scholars live in ivory towers. Many, not all, of us are committed to integrating faith, teaching, and research. Even when our work is technical, we (I) hope it leads to greater understanding and more faithful discipleship. I wish Ann Monroe had worked harder to communicate this. I'd better close now; tonight I'll be leading a Bible study in my own church.

Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Winthrop University
Rock Hill, South Carolina

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