"Today the Bible is deployed in the service of all manner of conservative and right wing causes. Biblical scholars need to weigh in on these debates," Dr. Stephen Patterson, director of The Westar Institute and George H. Atkinson Professor of Religious and Ethical Studies at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., recently stated. "Religion plays an enormous role in the shaping of our public life. Scholars of religion have a unique vocation to become public intellectuals. The mission of the Westar Institute is all about getting scholars to embrace that vocation."
It comes down to a pretty basic debate: How we read the bible matters. Religious Right organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council use the Bible to argue against equality for women, against marriage equality for gays and lesbians, against environmental protections and for U.S. military intervention in numerous locations. Are their positions biblically based or are these political positions cloaked in biblical language?
Patterson says: "The Bible Seminar aims to coax critical scholars out of the library and into the public square because basic critical scholarship can make a difference. What is the Bible? How did we get it? What does it really say about sexuality, the role of women and family values?"
At the November gathering in Berkeley, Calif., scholars like Claudia Setzer will discuss the role of the Bible in "America's great social debates, over slavery, evolution, modernism, and civil rights." Gregory C. Jenks will present a workshop that will discuss how to reclaim the Bible for progressives. And along with Patterson, John Dominic Crossan, Pamela Eisenbaum and Mark George will help kick-start a conversation over the role of the Bible in modern debates that moves us beyond dogma and into a genuine discussion over the role of the Bible in our common age.
Why are these debates over the Bible important? The Rev. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, asserts that the "Bible is totally truthful and without error" and this belief causes him to reject evolution -- a theory embraced by many biblical scholars and other people of faith -- and to believe that homosexuality is a sin. Thus, he opposes (strongly) the teaching of evolution in public schools along with programs that promote tolerance and diversity in the classroom. This has led Dr. Mohler to write: "I am convinced that the time has come for Christians to develop an exit strategy from the public schools. Some parents made this decision long ago. The Christian school and home school movements are among the most significant cultural developments of the last thirty years. Other parents are not there yet. In any event, an exit strategy should be in place."
Mohler's views represent a radical departure from mainstream Christianity (the National Council of Churches is a strong proponent of public education) and even evangelical Christians are warning that the anti-intellectualism embraced by figures such as Mohler harms the faith. Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens, two evangelical scholars, recently wrote in The New York Times that "Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblically grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectually engaged, humble and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, overconfident and reactionary." Mohler's fundamentalism stifles learning, debate and confuses theology with a partisan political platform.
The Westar Institutes' Bible Seminar will seek to reclaim the Bible from voices like Mohler's and to promote dialogue between scholars, clergy and lay members of churches.
The mission of The Westar Institute has always been to "to foster collaborative research in religious studies and to communicate the results of the scholarship of religion to a broad, non-specialist public." Right now that mission could not be more important because the debate over what the Bible is and what is means is being won not based on scholarship -- or even faithful discernment -- but by those with the biggest budgets and the strongest political allies. It's time to free the Bible and Christianity from those who engage in theological malpractice.