End of an Era in Sheffield?

Last year when I was in Buckie, Scotland, I wrote a couple of posts about F.F. Bruce, who grew up in nearby Elgin (here and here).   I noted that he helped establish the department of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield and that he adopted a historical, non-sectarian, and “secular” approach to the Bible.  Bruce himself was a devout believer, but he believed he could approach the Bible in the University as a historian and work with other historians apart on a neutral playing field.

Evidently there is a plan underway by the administration of the University to end the undergraduate program in Biblical Studies.  Mark Goodacre at Duke University  and Jim West from Volunteer country are urging concerned colleagues to make their voice known.

One of my colleagues, by the way, Dr. Don Leach, took a course under professor Bruce several years ago.  He presented the professor with a copy of J.W. McGarvey’s commentary on the book of Acts.  McGarvey wrote his famous commentary during the American civil war, and F.F. Bruce tells how he relieved many hours of war time tedium working on his commentary on Acts during the second world war.

Self-Loathing Professors

Robert Alter spoke of literature professors who don’t like literature in his book The Pleasure of Reading (reviewed here).  Professor Bruce Fleming likewise lamented that literary studies are killing literature by forcing students to learn the jargon and arcane techniques of “literary studies” rather than actually reading great literature.

Hector Avalos is a professor of the Bible who hates the Bible.   In an essay on the Society of Biblical Literature forum he sites with approval a literature professor’s views that

Shakespeare’s works, for example, have no intrinsic value, but they function as cultural capital insofar as “knowing Shakespeare” helps provide entry into elite educated society. The academic study of literature, in general, functions to maintain class distinctions rather than to help humanity in any practical manner.

Avalos then applies this critique to the Bible:

Similarly, the Bible has no intrinsic value or merit. Its value is a social construct, and the SBL is the agent of an elite class that wishes to retain its own value and employment by fostering the idea that biblical studies should matter.

Avalos is not really a self-loathing professor.  He admits to loving his work, and has contributed valuable research on medical anthropology in antiquity and in early Christianity.  His thesis–that providing universal access to free health care was the key factor in the spread of early Christianity–is interesting (review of Health Care and the Rise of Christianity here).

And I’m sure he enjoys the perks of his tenured position at Iowa State.  He might as well enjoy it while he can, because if they read his book The End of Biblical Studies, his position will be abolished–along with literature professorships.

Professor Guillermo Gonzalez won’t be enjoying tenure at Iowa State, though.  Even though his academic credentials were impeccable, Gonzalez was denied tenure because of his belief that the universe displays evidence of–gasp–being designed.  An email exchange between a physics professor at ISU and Hector Avalos is part of the evidence that Gonzalez was a victim of illegal ideological discrimination.

The ideological crime Gonzalez committed was suggesting in his book (and PBS video) The Privileged Planet that the earth is not only uniquely formed and situated to sustain life, but that it is also uniquely situated to allow human intelligence to observe and investigate the physical universe (More on Gonzalez here).

If only he had suggested that physics is an elite, privileged discipline that should be abolished–he might still be enjoying those privileges along with Dr. Avalos.