Academic vs. Popular Biblical Scholarship

On Facebook, Tim Bulkeley asked a great question in response to Monday’s post about “public” biblical scholarship. In response to my reservations about the possibility of a truly “academic” book for the public, he asked this:

Is the heart and truth of scholarship (to reveal my anti-pomo biases) actually as arcane as you make out Bryan? That is if one "writes" for a wider public is it necessarily (because outside one's specialist field(s) un-scholarly? I.e. is being "up to date" on current scholarship the be all and end all of a scholarly approach to a Bible passage?

As someone who is suspicious of the constant hungry drive to create “new” and “groundbreaking” research in biblical studies, I appreciate his point very much. After all, the Teacher tells us that there is nothing new under the sun, and the idea that we have to stay “up to day” with the “latest” scholarship is a bit of a rhetorical ruse to support the careers of Assistant and Associate professors.

On the other hand, scholarship is essentially a conversation, and we should always try to listen carefully and contribute to conversations in a timely and appropriate manner. When scholars criticize popular books for being “wrong,” sometimes they refer to basic errors, and sometimes they refer to the absence of whatever recent scholarship they find the most interesting.

In my book on the prophets (out early next year from Smyth & Helwys), I include a few pages that summarize the history of monarchical Israel. This section assumes no previous knowledge on the part of the reader, and is very broad and schematic. As I noted on Facebook, I would expect that every sentence is the subject of someone’s dissertation. Since I am writing for a popular audience, I cannot engage all of that scholarship as part of my brief summary. Does that make my writing wrong?

Since the book is an orientation for general readers, I have to decide which sorts of issues are the most important to understand the prophets. Those decisions reflect my own scholarly biases, but I do not explicitly name or defend my choices. Does that make my writing deceptive?

My goal in writing was to help beginning readers understand the prophetic literature better. I spend more time on covenantal theology than I do on post-colonial theory. I spend more time on the literary and rhetorical strategies in the text than on the biography of the prophets. To paraphrase Luther, this is the book that I have written, and I can do no other. I hope that scholars will agree with me that the book has something to teach about the prophets, even if they would have made different choices than I did. In the likely event that I made factual errors or omissions, I hope that they will inform me in a way that is respectful rather than accusatory.

In conclusion, I do not think that popular biblical scholarship is impossible, only that it is rhetorically risky, given the fractured nature of scholarly and public communities.