Yesterday I came across a brief post from early June in which Jim West sharply criticized an associate professor of physics at George Mason University who has initiated a new website dedicated to early Christianity. Entitled “What Do A Physicist and Christian Origins Have in Common?” it begins, “As much, I suspect, as a laywer [sic] and Dead Sea Scrolls expertise [presumably referring to the ongoing criminal case involving New York City attorney Raphael Golb].” In his customarily florid and thoroughly entertaining style, Jim expresses his frustration over the widespread dissemination of the opinions and conclusions of nonspecialists:
Why is it, then, that people who by their own confession are not expert in a field feel comfortable opining about it publicly? I think biblical scholars ought to rebel and start writing about physics and astronomy and cat farming and raising ducks and everything else out there, so that the people who are experts in those things can feel the same annoyance we get to feel every time we discover one of them…
His musings conclude with the judgment that “[e]veryone has an opinion on the bible and christian origins- and their views are either pure parroting or idiocy incarnate.” It is certainly true that, much like matters of politics (about which Jim writes frequently, although, as far as I am aware, he has no formal training or advanced degree in the subject), religious views are indescribably numerous and diverse. And I agree that those wishing to obtain the most thorough and most profiting grasp of biblical and early Christian studies must avail themselves of the work of the highly trained professionals who have devoted their careers to the illumination of these disciplines. A few other matters, however, give me pause. First, Jim’s question regarding the impetus for nonspecialist assessments of a given field seems to presume that the investigation of the Bible and its world is equivalent to any other area of study in its structure and operation. I would disagree. Whether as an object of academic research, a vehicle for the determination of the divine will and the subsequent implications for humanity, an influence of unrivaled proportions upon the development of Western thought and culture, or some combination thereof, the Bible is universally present throughout the many dimensions of the complex composite organism of American society—much more so than, say, theoretical physics. As David Parker has so rightly noted (albeit in a slightly different context), it is a “living text,” frustratingly yet breathtakingly protean, forever immersed in conversation with the cultures which receive, absorb, and transmit it. Such a conversation is too intrinsic and too multifaceted to involve only a pair of participant groups, the “specialists” who gather and disseminate knowledge and the “public” who receive it. Indeed, this type of model does not produce a conversation at all, merely a monologue. In order to fully actualize the Bible’s remarkable range of potentials, scholars must descend once and for all from their ivory tower and truly mingle with the innumerable multitudes milling about, excitedly but uncertainly, below. They must recognize a wide variety of responses to this eternal document—as a historical artifact; as a cultural icon; as a tool for the establishment and maintenance of a relationship with God—and work to encourage and stimulate these responses, whether through the creation of websites which demonstrate personal growth and promote the exchange of ideas or any number of other options. While nonspecialists need not, and almost certainly should not, be regarded as authorities in the field, they must be allowed to take part in the larger conversation and thus to participate in the process of mutual enrichment. As the familiar proverb dictates, the ultimate task of teachers is not to retain their authority over students indefinitely, but to make themselves unnecessary.
More to come (but not much more… promise).