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Where Do 'Liberal' Bible Scholars Come From?

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In public conversations such as The Huffington Post, it's common to see people deriding "liberal" biblical scholars, as if the world is just full of people whose dearest wish is to undermine the Bible and turn Jesus into nothing but a symbol for a bizarre mushroom cult.

(And by the way, that Jesus-mushroom thing? It was actually proposed.)

Biblical scholarship is an academic discipline, taught and studied at universities, colleges and divinity schools all around the world. So it should be no surprise that biblical scholars run in all shapes, sizes, colors and denominations. What would surprise many people, though, is that a very large number of us love Jesus and the church, and we spend hours upon hours communicating the love and wonder we experience with the Bible. Indeed, some of our secular colleagues justifiably complain there are too many of us in the field. More surprising might be this one fact: many of us have our roots in fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. The best way for conservative churches to produce "liberal" biblical scholars is to keep encouraging young people to read the Bible.

That's how it worked for me. I didn't grow up in church, but I found Jesus and was baptized in an Alabama Baptist church just before my 15th birthday. Our pastor and youth director encouraged me to read the Bible, so I did: I got an affordable new Bible and read the Gospel of John. And I loved it! I felt that I knew Jesus more intimately and understood my faith better.

Not long after reading John, I found a little brochure that contained a schedule for reading the Bible all the way through in one year. So I took the challenge, from Genesis through Revelation, about three or four chapters a day -- and more when I missed a day. At some point I started highlighting meaningful passages. And within a year, not only had I read the entire Bible, some sections now appeared in lime green, neon yellow and turquoise blue. I suspect that most of the verses in Romans and John are highlighted. Probably less so for Obadiah.

I read the Bible all the way through twice as a young person, not to mention the daily devotionals, Bible studies, Sunday School lessons and youth group meanings that structure a Southern Baptist teenager's life. And along the way, a few things happened that prepared the way for my journey into biblical scholarship.

The first thing seemed little, but it proved to be important later on. Reading through Matthew, then Mark, and then Luke, a young person can get bored: Didn't I see this story before? I get it already: How many people did Jesus heal? But something else happens, too. You begin to notice little inconsistencies. Did Jesus say that whoever is not with him is against him (Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23), or did he say that whoever is not against him is for him (Mark 9:40)? Who was there to visit Jesus' tomb? How did Judas die (Matthew 27:1-10; Acts 1:18-19)?

An innocent Bible reader assumes there must be satisfactory resolutions to such problems. But no such explanations exist. Different biblical books simply tell stories differently. Some offer conflicting answers to important questions. In my case this became clear when I sat in on a religious studies class during a college visit. With a colorful chart, the instructor was explaining how the Gospels were composed -- that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke relied upon copies of Mark. As soon as I saw that chart, I instantly knew where we were headed! There was no way the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses who simply remembered things differently. At that moment I had no idea I'd wind up devoting a career to biblical studies. Ironic, I suppose.

My second memory involves the one thing that most bothers pious high schoolers: sex. Our church leaders warned us not only to abstain sexual intercourse but also to avoid those heavy makeout sessions that lead to removing sweaters, exploring panty lines and so forth. And depending on what the meaning of is, is, I pretty much succeeded. But I was also reading my Bible. And nowhere did I find all this stuff about saving sex for marriage. (That's because the Bible doesn't include that message, certainly not consistently.)

Naturally, I asked one of our adult leaders, who in turn grew quite frustrated by my impertinence. A few days later a card came in the mail, signed by this adult with a simple Bible reference, Proverbs 3:5-6. I'm sure my quotation isn't exactly accurate, but I knew it in the King James Version: "Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths." (OK, I checked. I only substituted a comma for a semi-colon.) This person who was responsible for my spiritual development had effectively patted me on the head and told me to submit to what the church was teaching. My own reading of the Bible didn't amount to much, after all.

One more memory, and I've reflected on this in another blog post. A few years ago I looked back through that old Bible, with all its highlighted marks. And I wondered how a 16-year-old Southern Baptist would have made sense out of Ephesians 5:21-6:9, a passage that tells wives to submit to their husbands, children to obey their parents and slaves to obey their masters. To this 16-year-old boy, wives obeying husbands sounded like a good deal. Being pious, I even highlighted the part about children and parents. But having grown up in Alabama, with the coals still hot from Birmingham and Selma, I simply could not highlight slaves' obedience as an expression of God's will. I'd already learned an important lesson: the Bible requires responsible interpretation.

Mark Twain is supposed to have said, "The best cure for Christianity is reading the Bible." If he did say that, his wisdom didn't take in my case. Though I understand it differently, I love the Bible as much as I ever have. I'm just as passionate for Jesus and for the gospel as I ever have been, though I understand them differently too. But I can say this: Reading the Bible is a terrific cure for fundamentalism. That's exactly how many of us so-called liberal Bible scholars got our start.