What is the public for biblical scholarship? On dominant and counter publics.


This week I am participating in a faculty seminar on the topic of “the calling of the professoriate,” specifically considering how professors should (or should not) engage the larger world outside the classroom as “public intellectuals.”

The first day’s discussion touched on the issue of “the public,” and how scholars identify and relate to various “publics.” Michael Warner, in his book Publics and Counter Publics, argues that the Public is actually a contested space. There is a dominant public that assumes that its own perspective is obvious and normal, along with one or more counterpublics that find themselves in a subordinate position, hoping for transformation of the social space.

Obviously with regard to the American church as a whole, biblical scholars form a “counterpublic” whose critical perspective is a challenge to the normative use of the Bible in congregations. That simplifies matters a great deal, of course, and there are divisions within both religious and academic communities of biblical readers. This basic division (and hierarchy) is evident, however.

Another interesting thing about Warner’s thesis is that publics are communities that form around the distribution and interpretation of texts over time. When scholars write for other scholars, they address a public that shares a canon, not only the Bible but also the volume of textual citations that have grown around the central text. But what about when biblical scholars attempt to address “the public,” that is, the larger community of biblical readers outside the scholarly realm? Even though they have a shared topic (Romans 1 and Leviticus 18, for instance), they are not part of the same reading community. Controversy and misunderstanding ensue.

How can a scholar communicate effectively in this situation? Should they even try? These are fundamental questions facing the guild of biblical scholarship these days. If I tell my students that 90% of books published on the Bible are terrible, what I am saying that they were not written for me. The same is true when academic books are resisted (or more commonly, ignored) by the reading public.

My view is that scholars must try to communicate to the dominant public, working to transform (even in a small way) the manner in which biblical texts are read, interpreted, and applied in social space. “Biblioblogs” are a good platform for this, I imagine, but the reality is that the biblioblog community is often a conversation among scholars (or scholars-in-training) rather than true public communication. The tension here is obvious, for instance, on the unofficial Society of Biblical Literature Facebook page, where religious and academic readers of the Bible constantly talk past each other, to sometimes humorous effect.

How can academics better communicate to the public, and what should be their goal? As someone who cares deeply for the integrity of the church and of academia, this question will continue to engage and trouble me. Hopefully, my friend Dr. Junior will not give me the side-eye.