Discussion: Trible’s Tasmanian Tigers

(With its two companion posts, this is a discussion exercise for some of my students, while our course management system undergoes an untimely upgrade. Other readers may choose to chime in, but please let the students “own the space,” and remember that I’ll delete off-topic or disrespectful comments and replies. This post will only accept comments through June 20th.)

You have all completed Michael Joseph Brown’s book, What They Don’t Tell You: A Survivor’s Guide to Biblical Studies (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2000).

In about 350 words:

In your own words, how does Brown distinguish between “Bible study” as a devotional exercise and critical, academic “biblical studies” as practiced in a class like ours?

Does academic biblical studies differ significantly from how you have read the Bible in the past? Does academic biblical studies have any similarities to any reading you have done before?

What reservations, if any, do you have about reading the Bible in the ways described by Brown? Which “Rules of Thumb” 1–12 correspond to these reservations? Conversely, which of his “Rules of Thumb” 1–12, if any, do you find especially exciting as avenues toward better understanding the Bible?

Click “Leave a Comment” below to begin writing your response. Remembering that this blog is a public space, feel free to use only your first name and last initial (for example, “Jane F.”). Please remember to come back and respond to at least three of your classmates, by clicking “Reply” below their comment.

[Discussion: Trible’s Tasmanian Tigers was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/06/14. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

22 Responses

  1. For me, the most significant distinguishing factors between devotional and academic treatment of the Bible are in the realms of criticism and application. It is the difference between studying the Bible as God’s Word (in English, of course) delivered to me, a 21st century Christian, in the context of my denominational, cultural, and familial biases against the study of the writings of those whose unique relationship with God brought forth words that immediately and timelessly communicate the nature of God.

    I feel that I have always read the Bible critically; however, the more I continue in academic Biblical studies, the more I find myself engaging the text in new and analytical ways. This constant discovery is thrilling to me! I especially appreciate the opportunity to consider the historical context/setting of a text, instead of basing my interpretation and application on my 21st century context.

    With that being said, I believe that there is a place for both devotional and academic study of the Bible, and I appreciate Brown’s affirmation of the different contextual environments of study. I find, though, that the more I delve into academic biblical study, the more I actually have to keep my mouth shut in our church community’s Bible studies, for some of the questions I am asking of the text would be difficult or even detrimental to another’s faith.

    Finally, I also can’t help but wonder if, in the course of academic study of the Bible, that I’m trading one set of biases for another…I mean, often in an academic setting I will temporarily suspend my predispositions (often driven by my culture, family, and church affiliations) about a text in order to consider a new perspective (often driven by the agenda of the professor or the academic institution). Moreover, my undergraduate biblical studies were at a conservative Lutheran academic institution, and now my graduate studies are in a Methodist seminary. To this end, Brown’s RoTs (especially 24-28) are particularly encouraging. I am eager to see where I pan out in the end! 🙂

    • It is exciting for me, a neophyte to all of this, to hear of your journey in Bible study, and biblical studies. I agree both have merits.

      I wonder if you aren’t selling your parishioner’s a bit short though when you talk of “keeping your mouth shut” for concern of being “difficult or even detrimental to another’s faith”. As Brown himself points out in rule 27, “If your faith can’t stand a little shaking, perhaps there wasn’t much of a foundation there in the first place.”
      I believe that in the knowing of who the verses came from and why they were written, the Bible will have more meaning, and in the end, hopefully strengthen my foundation. (Again I am paraphrasing and relying on what Brown has said towards the end of his book. (page 143).

      Perhaps in your church Bible study, it is just this knowledge and “shaking” that will lead newer Christians to a deeper and more thoughtful faith. Presumably they are surrounded there by other faith filled people, and you after all, are there to tell them why it can be that a more critical approach to the reading may lead to higher truths, and a firmer foundation. N’est-ce pas?

      • Jim O–

        Thanks for this response! I in many ways agree with you, and should qualify my statement a little…I TRY to keep my mouth shut. 🙂 But my point was that there should be a balance between academic and devotional Bible study. I, personally, struggle with this, as my study recently has leaned much more towards academic; however, when I am in devotional situations, I want to honor and enjoy that context as well.

        I do, when appropriate, share the insights that I am gaining from academic Biblical study in our group settings. Sometimes they are helpful, sometimes they are outside of the perspective of most in the group. I’m working to learn the right times to share and the right times to wrestle alone…

    • Your first paragraph needs a bit more clarity. Also, I hope that this class will provide you a different perspective on the “timeless” nature of the biblical texts, which actually need to be read in a more contextual, time-conditioned way.

      I have to disagree about questions being detrimental to faith. Actually, as Brown points out, hard questions test, refine, and strengthen faith (though they do certainly change it).

      Brown certainly also addressed the inescapable fact that all interpreters, including biblical scholars, have their prejudices, but that does not mean that all prejudices about the text are equally valid or invalid. Some are more consistent with the facts than others. Some are less harmful than others.

      • Gene,

        Thanks for these words! Can you clarify your statement about my first paragraph?

        I was not advocating the interpretation of the biblical texts as timeless, nor in reality the texts themselves…however, I do think that the Bible timelessly communicates the nature of God. However, perhaps my interpretation of the timeless nature of God is conditioned by my own reception of the texts and subsequent interpretation…

        I should clarify my statement about detrimental questions…what I mean is that the questions I am asking are not the questions that some of my parishoners and peers are asking, and therefore are not helpful to them. We must remember Paul’s guidance in I Corinthians 8-9 and Romans 14…I may be ready to eat meat, but someone else may not…

        I would also agree with your final comment–however, try telling that to the person who holds the prejudice! My job is to glean through the prejudices (while discovering my own prejudices), so that I might deepen my own understanding of scripture.

    • Jim,

      I appreciate your post and, in particular your comment about “keeping your mouth shut.” I can see, for example, that advocating Brown’s ROT 1 in a church Bible study could be misunderstood without the appropriate context and background. The mental image that I have is that through this course we will become ‘armed and dangerous’ and that proper care will be called upon for employing critical approaches among certain audiences. I think we will need to be aware of which ‘hat’ we are wearing as we engage with others and to be mindful that there is a time a place for both devotional and academic approaches to the Bible.

      Nice work, I enjoyed reading your post.

      James L.

      • Thanks for these words. I agree!!

      • Jim,

        I challenged the reference to “timeless” truths because many do indeed read the Bible as an expression of timeless truths, while a substantial emphasis of academic biblical studies is to demonstrate that most of the Bible is not at all about timeless truths. Rather, perspectives expressed in the Bible have distinct historical and social–and often political–contexts (and quite often biases). Moreover, the various perspectives expressed in the Bible do not all agree but sometimes contradict each other. At points, one can detect a kind of running debate over points of contention. For example, in the Deuternomonistic History (DtrH) (Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, and 1&2 Kings), there are conflicting views about whether or not the monarchy is a good thing–whether a necessity or a denial of God’s rule. Another example is about intermarriage and intermingling with foreigners–rejected vehemently by Ezra and Nehemiah and by much of the DtrH but regarded in a much friendlier way in Ruth and Esther. Then DtrH expresses a view known as “retribution theology,” in which there is a clear affirmation that obedience to God leads to blessings and disobedience to curses–a view challenged rigorously by Job and Eccelesiastes. (Consider this a “sneak preview” of some of the themes of the course.)

    • I would encourage you not to ‘keep your mouth shut’ in a community Bible study. I think how you offer your thoughts, comments, questions is important and you should certainly be sensitive to others in the group. I often find that offering a different perspective invites others to explore the possibility that there are different ways to understand, but it cannot be my ‘agenda’ to change their perspective or their faith.
      And I find that biblical study (although mine is somewhat limited) might sometimes disturb me briefly (oh dear, this isn’t how I always understood this story), but usually enhances my awareness of God in the lives and relationships of others, and therefore, of my own understanding of and relationship with God. And finding ways to gracefully share that experience with others opens (maybe only a tiny crack) new perspectives for them.

      • Nancy,

        You are right that this is probably a much better way to approach this! Thanks for the insight!

    • Jim

      Your comments at the end are funny it made me laugh out loud indeed. I thought the same thing. I even went so far as to look up Michael Coogan and then I thought why Julie? Why? Go with the flow of the class. Trust the process, but I am thankful my fears are shared by others and yet we continue to full engage the process.
      Thanks for sharing Hey how did you get the smiley face icon on there?

  2. Dr. Brown makes the distinction between academic and devotional Bible study, describing the later as often being a search for affirmation of one’s own faith perspective, whereas academic biblical studies attempts to truthfully and accurately ascertain what the scripture writer of old was attempting to convey about God. Furthermore, academic biblical scholarship involves evaluating and analyzing what other scholars have said previously about the writer, or the passage. Are there for instance, new archeological findings which bear on previous interpretations? Are there evident now, biases in prior scholarship, which should properly be modified in light of what we know today.

    When I have read the Bible, I have been trying to “listen” to what I think God may be telling me through the scripture. This is a far cry from academic biblical study which first asks what the writer intended to say about God in his or her own time. Academic study of the bible I think, is similar to the way I read a scientific or medical paper. I want to know if the source is authoritative and reputable. Is there adequate documentation that the facts and data merit the conclusions that have been drawn? Is there bias evident? It is also the way I evaluate much of what I read in the press. I like to try to determine the bias and ask what other points of view can look at this same set of facts and offer alternative conclusions?

    I don’t know that I have reservations about reading and studying the Bible in the academic manner that Dr. Brown describes, though I certainly feel inadequate to the task at the current time! Can I keep the rules of thumb that Dr. Brown describes in mind as I read and study? Having read his book, do I really understand the rules? Certainly not to the depth he does. However Rule #1 asks us to read critically, and I like that. I fear unintentionally laying my modern assumptions into the text and violating rule #2. How does one know after all, what one doesn’t know?
    Hopefully, in trying to apply rule #11, and researching the context I will find out how my modern context differs from the context of the ancient texts.

    The excitement for me comes in knowing that while I most certainly don’t understand these rules fully, this course will be giving me the opportunity to learn these skills and apply them to my readings. Perhaps the reading of some passage will be found to have original meaning far different from the way I have viewed it previously. Perhaps, just perhaps, the intended meaning, as opposed to my prior interpretation, may have an even more important or more pertinent meaning for my faith journey.

    • Jim O-

      Forgive the late reply–am catching up here! I really appreciate your sensitivity towards excellence and diligence in this field. With your background, I’m sure that you will quickly become comfortable with the “rules” and will use them efficaciously. I pray for you (and for all of us) that this experience helps us to “listen to God” in a new and exciting way.


    • Hi Jim,
      Jumping on your final paragraph, I enjoy biblical study because it often presents me with a totally different way of seeing and understanding a story and for me, that’s part of the adventure, the excitement. I usually don’t feel threatened, just excited about broadening and enhancing my understanding about God.

      Although I agree that some folks use Bible study as a way of affirming their existing position, I don’t think that has to be true. Something like Disciple Bible Study, for example (I have taught I, II, an III), is a great example of Bible study that challenges and nudges people to continuallly re-evaluate their understanding and awareness of God; in their own lives and in the world. It often opens doors that ‘rocks’ someones faith, and that is where the group learning nurtures and supports folks through those challenges.

      I also liked your comparison of Biblical studies and how you would approach it with your reading of medical papers/journals; I think that’s a great analogy.


    • I am feeling you brother. (I can relate to you referring to a scientific paper, but I wrestle with the credibility part). I often find it hard to outcome measurement as it relates to faith. I think of scriptures like Mathew 12:33 “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.” But my questions are who is qualified to judge the fruit? What standard are they using to make the comparison? There are many scientific truths that scholars and society held true that are not valid today. As sad as it maybe in my third year in seminary I still lean on my faith experience with God. I hear you and I too am excited about this class and its format. Sorry about comments being late I finally figured it out..

  3. In my experiences of Bible studies, the focus has largely been on: seeking to understand what God might be saying to me in the particular scripture, what interactions occurred between God and the individual in the particular scripture as a way of helping me understand how that might inform my relationship with God, and how do I understand what it means to be a Christian, i.e., what did Jesus teach about how to live, how to be in relationship with one another, with God, what does scripture tell me about how to be a faith community, how to be the church.
    Biblical study appears to be more about understanding the Bible as an entity: why were the individual books chosen to be ‘the Bible’, how and when were they writtten, who might have authored them and why, what was the intent of the story when it was written and who was its audience, how and why might different versions exist; it is not primarily about informing my faith.
    After many years of being active in a church, I have significantly more experience with Bible study than with biblical study. The limited experience I have with biblical study comes from other seminary classes.
    I’m not overly concerned about engaging in biblical studies as long as I continue to remind myself of the difference. To the extent I have a reservation, it would be separating myself from the inclination to always seek to ‘hear’ what God might be saying to me. From that perspective, the two ‘rules of thumb’ that were most bothersome were #7 and #19. Rule of thumb #7, An overactive imagination can get you into trouble. The ability to ‘imagine’ yourself as part of the story is often an important aspect of finding personal meaning in the story and I would hate to lose sight of the value of a vivid imagination when reading the Bible. Rule of thumb #19, Don’t argue what you can’t prove. Again, I need to appreciate the intent; I don’t normally feel the need to either ‘argue’ or ‘prove’ my understanding of scripture as it applies to my understanding of God or my relationship with God; constructing arguments is not something I would naturally enter into.
    From the perspective of what I find exciting; there were several rules (#2, 6, 9, 10, 13, 27) which focus on understanding the culture and the people (both the ways in which they are different and ways in which they are similar) that offer an opportunity to process and understand many of the stories in ways that may be different from what we learned in Sunday School. And that new awareness doesn’t need to threaten my faith; hopefully, it is quite the opposite, my faith is strengthened and nurtured by more fully understanding this thing we call the Bible.

    • Nancy,

      I really appreciated your words here, and especially enjoyed considering your difference between Bible Study and biblical studies. I have found that academic biblical study DOES “inform my faith,” and I pray that you have the same experience as you continue in your studies.

      As I’m teaching my son (almost two), I’ve wondered about a similar issue to what you address in your final paragraph…how do I teach my son the stories of the Bible in a culturally/contextually aware way, while I myself have only come to that knowledge later in life. As I’ve learned new “tidbits” about the texts that completely change my perspective on some passages, I struggle with how to help my son have a more open-minded view towards the Bible stories than what I did in my childhood. It has been fun so far…:-)

      • Hi Jim,
        You’re right; biblical study does inform my faith. My thought was that that is not necessarily the intent of biblical study; the fact that my faith is nurtured and enhanced is a benefit. But perhaps that is a goal of biblical studies; I will continue to ponder that.
        As for your son, I found with my own children (I have two sets of twins), I shared honestly about my own understandings as well as my questions and doubts in ways that were age appropriate as they were growing up. But I have always encouraged questions; as Brown discussed in his book, questions should build on a firm foundation, not shake it.

    • Hi Nancy ,

      I finding a way to set this reminder in my mind is hard. I flip flop between looking at the bible very leery and questioning everything, to relying more on my faith journey and not looking at it critic enough. At times it is easy to just trust the word but the social justice side of me seems to be what keeps the questions brewing.

      Thanks for sharing

      • Dear Ms. K,
        You make a good point that a concern for social justice motivates critical biblical study. Sometimes this is because texts have a concern for social justice, but it’s hard for us to hear it because the language and the imagined situations are unfamiliar. But other times, the text raises for us a social justice concern not shared by the text. For just one example, take the David and Bathsheba story. Nathan’s parable, and the progression of the story as a whole, make it clear that the real victim in that story is considered to be Uriah, not Bathsheba: David’s crime is not considered to be the abduction and rape of Bathsheba, but a crime of theft against Uriah. Only by critically distancing ourselves from the patriarchal world view presupposed by the text can we recognize the problem (“hey, the text does not seem terribly concerned about Bathsheba”) and respond to it (“but that doesn’t mean that I must view David’s crime in the same way that the text does”). That is, our feminist concern for social justice is not shared by the text, but the text may still give rise to our expression of that concern.

  4. The Book by the Michael Joseph Brown entitled “What They Don’t Tell You: A Survivor’s Guide to Biblical Studies” was extremely helpful in ordering my approach and understanding of how to read, study and teach the bible. Brown’s statement assisted me in framing my response to the question of “Does academic biblical studies differ significantly from how you have read the Bible in the past? Does academic biblical studies have any similarities to any reading you have done before?” as I engage in our theological blog. My challenge is to understand the bible and its tradition and gain an ability to implement it in my particular ministry construct. Historically, it is understood that marginalized people in society accepted and practiced the religious traditions of the elite’s. Many of these traditions were formulated to keep the ruling class in power. Traditions like women being considered inferior and how God did not want them to usurp a man’s authority, commandments that encouraged slaves to honor their masters by remaining and serving faithfully until the end, and ordinances that emphasized people to tithe their first fruit to the priest. The bible helped support these ideologies and thus they have become engrained in the culture. I was stuck on Rule of thumb number One “When you read the Bible, approach it as you would any other book.” I was taught the bible was the holy inspired word of God and that nothing of it could ever be questioned. I felt like I was committing treason against the Lord’s Army, so yes the way I read the bible in the past is very different from how I have learned to read the periscope or text in seminary. I agree with when he Brown’s says that Bible study classes can often be classified as “self help” groups because the classes are focused on strengthening their religious beliefs, but I believe when the academic meets faith it can be very empowering especially to people who have been opposed by the bible. Since I have been afforded the opportunity to study and understand theological traditions, I see the usefulness it has for Christians desiring a greater understanding of their faith.

    • I appreciate your struggle with your early understandings of the Bible and it’s authority; I think that struggle is real for many people. I am grateful for being raised in a faith community that encouraged questions, doubts, and even, ‘complaints’ to God; where honesty and authenticity with God were more important that being polite, where that type of interaction with God was not considered disrepectful.

      I am also sensitive to the times and places in scripture where ‘justice’ does not appear to prevail; I think my initial sensitivity was with regard to the treatment of women, but that sensitivity helped me look at other groups who did not appear to be receiving just treatment, at least as our current culture would define that. But those places in the Bible also give me insights into the culture of the time and place. I have to remember that how I ‘see’ the world is defined by the century in which I live, as was the vision of the world as the people in the Bible knew and understood it.


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