Donors rescue the Faculty Lounge of evangelicalism

The faculty lounge is a place where teachers and professors can relax and talk amongst themselves without worrying about who might be listening in. I think that also describes the role that Books & Culture has played in American evangelicalism.

The bimonthly publication began in 1995 — a year after Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was published. Books & Culture’s design and format revealed its ambition — to serve as a kind of New York Review of Books for evangelical Christians. It was a place where scholars could engage one another, writing long or writing deep in a way that the general-public format of Christianity Today did not allow.

But Books & Culture also, from the outset, was a forum for something else that popular evangelical publications did not allow: candid, unapologetic discussion of taboo knowledge and subject matter that had to be tip-toed around delicately when writing for a wider evangelical audience. If you are an evangelical scholar writing for Christianity Today, there are a host of Things That Cannot Be Said without sparking a heated controversy — even though none of them is actually controversial even among very conservative evangelical scholars. Whether the topic is the authorship of the pastoral epistles, or the archaeological evidence for (i.e., against) the conquest of Canaan, or more secular subjects such as the age of the Earth, Books & Culture allowed evangelicals to discuss what we’re learning honestly and openly without having to worry about setting off the hair-pin trigger alarms of either the culture warriors or the inerrantists patrolling the pages of CT for anything they perceived to be a deviation from their factually challenged version of God’s Own Truth.

Books & Culture provided a forum in which something like Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam could be discussed without its existence needing to be defended. Discussing such a book outside of the safety of the Faculty Lounge could be next to impossible. When most of one’s time and energy must be spent defending the existence of a book — or defending its author, its questions, its right to ask questions — then little time or energy remains for the actual discussion needed to move the conversation forward.

That’s what makes Books & Culture an invaluable safe space for evangelical scholars, and why so many of them were dismayed to learn, late last month, that the Faculty Lounge was in jeopardy of closing forever. It’s also why so many of them were willing to open their checkbooks to save it — helping to raise more than $250,000 to rescue B&C from the budget crisis that parent-company Christianity Today said would otherwise have ended it for good. And it’s also why several evangelical colleges and seminaries have pledged continued funding to ensure B&C’s financial health through the next four years.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

For an example of the sort of Things That Cannot Be Said I’m referring to above, check out this oddball little post on CT’s “Gleanings” blog discussing “Snake Handling History in Six Bites.”

Kate Tracy’s post marks the debut of NatGeo’s new reality show on snake-handling Pentecostal ministers, Snake Salvation. Tracy’s first “bite” notes the purported biblical basis for the practice:

The practice began in 1910 when an illiterate Tennessee preacher tried to literally apply Mark 16:18: “They will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them…” (ESV). However, scholars debate the authenticity of that passage.

That last sentence is a faux pas. That’s Faculty-Lounge language, not the sort of thing that can be casually admitted in a classroom in front of the children.

The scholarly debate over the authenticity of the “long” ending of Mark (verses 9-20 of chapter 16) is not, in fact, controversial — not even among conservative evangelical scholars. But among the general evangelical public, that debate is extremely controversial — so much so that it’s professionally dangerous for any evangelical scholar to publicly admit sharing any doubts about “the authenticity of that passage.” Expressing doubt about the “authenticity” of any passage in the Bible can lead to termination, blacklisting, donor-boycotts and worse.

That snake-bites story was just posted this evening and hasn’t yet received any comments. Maybe it’ll escape the notice of the Inerrancy Police and the hyper-vigilant Defenders of the Authority of the Scripture. Maybe the DotAotS will let this violation slip by because they don’t want to seem like they’re defending snake-handlers. But I’m guessing we’ll soon see some comments there directing some of their perpetual indignation toward the suggestion that any passage of their inspired holy text might not be authentic.

That’s the difference between the Faculty Lounge and the classroom — between the sort of discussion it’s possible to have in the pages of Books & Culture and the sort of discussion it’s impossible to have in the pages of Christianity Today. Mention the dubious provenance of Mark 16:9-20 in the Faculty Lounge and the other professors will nod their heads in agreement at this bit of unremarkable common knowledge. Mention such a thing in the classroom and several children will go into an uproar, loudly pointing out that 2 Timothy 3:16 clearly proves that all of Mark 16 must be authentically “given by inspiration of God.”

(And if such a student says that “Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 …” a prudent professor will recognize that any response involving the unlikelihood of Pauline authorship of 2 Timothy would only make matters worse. That’s a Faculty Lounge discussion and yet another of the Things Which Cannot Be Said in front of the children.)

– – – – – – – – – – – –

It’s important to note that this enforced duality isn’t exclusively a matter of financial prudence on the part of evangelical scholars. Skepticism about the role that money plays in such duality is certainly warranted — particularly since monetary threats of financial ruin are the principle weapon employed by the would-be tribal gatekeepers, who seem, themselves, motivated in large measure by the lucrative financial prospect of positioning themselves as the Defenders of the Authority of the Scriptures (see for example, “White evangelical gatekeeping: A particularly ugly example in real time“).

But convenience is as much a part of this as any supposed cowardice. Choosing to discuss certain things only amongst one’s peers in the Faculty Lounge is a way of avoiding interruptions and distractions that would likely derail any fruitful conversation.

This duality also arises from an important pastoral concern. The loudest objections to honest discussion tend to come from the professional witch-hunters — people like Al Mohler, Owen Strachan, Denny Burke, etc., who have a direct financial stake in branding themselves as the belligerent (and sanctimoniously “disappointed” — oh, how it grieves them to have to say such things …) defenders of a twisted Bonsai orthodoxy. But the larger pool of those offended are the many people who have been led astray by those same professionals. And careless candor threatens to do further harm to the victims of the witch-hunters’ “ministry” — those whose faith has been rendered fragile and brittle by accepting the all-or-nothing bundle of truth and lies that folks like Mohler are selling.

Too much honesty indelicately delivered might break a bruised reed. Someone who has been indoctrinated with, for example, the toxic all-or-nothing claims of young-Earth creationism may be in a state in which being told that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old is tantamount to being told that Jesus doesn’t love them and life is meaningless. It doesn’t matter if that’s illogical — that none of that necessarily follows or even possibly follows. They’ve been conditioned to think that it does, and so they’re not going to be able to receive brutal honesty as anything other than brutality.

We can’t indefinitely spare them the inevitable crisis that the lies of the witch-hunters have laid in their path, but we ought to do our best to make that crisis less cruel and traumatizing, not more so.

My own take on this pastoral consideration is to try to be as gentle as possible so as not to break a bruised reed, while, at the same time, hitting back — hard — at the reed-bruising charlatans responsible for causing so many to be in such a vulnerable, unsustainable state. The first pastoral obligation to the victims of such abuse is to protect them from further abuse.

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  • timboysen

    Maybe It’s a bigger deal in other circles but I feel like the controversy of Mark 16:9-20 is being exaggerated. My copy of the ESV was willing to put the whole thing in double brackets with an editors note so putting it in the same controversy camp as the age of the earth seems a bit over the top.

  • Matri

    Thing is, you’re using the ESV.

    These people use the 100% true, straight-from-God’s-mouth, One True Bible: The KJV.

  • Ivkra

    This is so frustrating. There’s so much about the Bible that is so vastly important to understanding it properly, where do you even start? I just realized the other day that the reason the passage for study didn’t sound right while reading it aloud was because it wasn’t in Elizabethan – and so my instincts are going “Wait, this can’t be right…”

    God. A few years ago this would all have been cause for head-shaking and maybe a little research, but I’ve gotten to the point where I really want to know this stuff. I’m tired of fumbling in the dark over the Scriptures, and although it’s awesome that there are folks like you, Fred, and folks at church now, who know this background and mention it sometimes (and explain, usually, when asked), it’s not enough. I don’t want to follow folks around asking questions about the Bible. I already do that with liturgy, damn it, I should already know the Scriptures.

    Where the hell is all this background when you need it? Why is it that the big, thick, highlighted-and-penciled-in King James Bible of my father’s, or our pastor’s had so many cross-references and notes, but never mentioned that the ending of one of the gospels was tacked on after the fact? How is it that the dude could preach a sermon full-length on the connection between the dash at the end of Exodus 32 and the one in the Crucifixion, but never make a connection between the forgiveness of the Israelites and the forgiveness of Paul and the exultation over the lost sinner for pity’s sake.

    I keep saying, jokingly, that I have a list of questions a mile long about liturgy and the whys and hows and wherefores of the Episcopal church. But honestly, when things like this come up (as they do just about every week, now), I think my list shrinks down to a single grievous question that I’d like to hit my former pastor with: Why? Why did you lie about this? Why did you pretend this was all a solid monolithic text, when even the shallowest brush reveals that as untrue? How did you think that it was better to mislead an entire congregation into believing that the words of Paul (or other letter-writers of that vague era) were equal to those of Jesus Christ? My God, did you deceive yourself, or only us?

    And the thing is, I’m twenty-three. I’m going to be back in school full-time in two weeks. Less, actually. These revelations of “Holy crap, this is the opposite of what I thought was true” are getting less and less scary, and more and more freeing and interesting. But I have less, and less, and less time to actually look them up, to study, to ask, to understand, and at this point, I probably never will fully understand. There’s things that are okay with that. I’m okay with saying “It’s a mystery” about a lot of things about faith. I’m delighted and overwhelmed with joy at finding a church that actually celebrates questions, and canonizes paradoxes. But I am really, really not okay with being about 1200 years behind the times with regards to the Scriptures. (Or occasionally I guess 3000 years, or 400, depending on which parts of the Bible you mean. See also: “Wait, the book of… Siraq? What? …what on earth is the Apocrypha?”)

    The realization that I will most likely never have a full understanding of the Bible is a really, really depressing one. I should’ve been paying attention all this time, and I never did. So I figure I’ll swallow my anger and bitterness at the gatekeepers and the – children may be a good word – and maybe in a few decades we’ll have a wider and better understanding of all this, all over.

    (Unrelated to any of the above, except… er, okay, related to the above in a way that is very difficult to word in less than several paragraphs: I’m changing my name here, and probably my avatar. I deeply regret the folly and cultural appropriation that heralded my entering into this community somewhere between three and four years ago. I am not… that person. Or I am, but I’m realizing that maaaaybe I’m not actually too fucked up to be human, or too fucked up to be loved. Maybe that’s a little arrogant, and more than a little foolish. So it’s gotta stop. This is one step, at least, in that direction.)

  • The Revised Standard Version leaves it unbracketed as well but the annotations indicate that there are variant meanings and interpretations.

  • This sort of thing is why some writers who reference Bible texts often purposely use different versions to cross-check. Translations can be as much political as liturgical, and the King James is in particular no exception, especially as it has been elevated to a position of near-sanctification among some right-wing evangelical and fundamentalist sects.

    I show my bias here, but I suggest you have at least a copy of the Revised Standard Version aside to your King James. The translation made was with a view to reaching back to the oldest extant texts and retranslating them from their languages into an English that would resemble the KJV in structure but be a more faithful (pardon the pun) rendition of the language.

    Still other versions purposely try to render the language of the Bible in the form more commonly used today (no thees and thous, etc) and you may find them useful too.

  • Ivkra

    Well, that’s the thing. I don’t have my King James anymore – left it behind when I moved out, and if it is still around, it’s buried in boxes, and the reading I do is usually in… oh God, I have no idea what translation the lectionary is done in. Um. Well, I have a new question or three to spring on an unsuspecting victim tomorrow.

    Anyway – I do know how important it is to cross-check, and that no one version is absolutely authoritative, and even that the King James is a very political version (ironically, I was recently informed, politically written with a lot of emphasis on supporting the monarchy. So, um, that.)

    My frustration is mostly that I just don’t know enough about the Bible, and even with the amount of diligent research I’d like to do (but will likely never have the time for), I’ll probably never finish uprooting the old shadows and cobwebs and footprints on the understandings of my youth.

  • arcseconds

    Very interesting.

    It’s tempting for many of us outside this whole subculture to paint with a broad brush. It took me a while to get to grips with the concept of fundamentalism not being the same as evangelicalism!

    (And of course, for some of us, the brush is no narrower than ‘Christian’…)

    Now I have to understand there’s a big difference between very conservative evangelical scholars and very conservative evangelicals, and a world of difference between them and Al Mohler.

    I wonder what the very conservative evangelical scholars think of the rowdy kids… or the professional witch-hunters…

  • Fusina

    You mentioned the Episcopal church, in which case it is either Revised or New Revised Standard Version.

    And have fun on your journey. As you wander across the Wilderness, you will find there are many of us out there, mostly acting kind of stoned, in a “Wow! That is awesome! I never looked at it that way before!” sort of way.

    Freedom and questions, ain’t it great?!

  • That’s how I real about all religion. If you aren’t feeling like that stoned double rainbow guy on YouTube on at least a thrice weekly basis, you’re doing something wrong.

  • The_L1985

    I remember the first time I opened my TEV Bible I’d gotten for First Communion to the Book of Mark. I saw the words “The Old Ending of the Book of Mark” as one heading, then after the empty tomb part, it said, “A Newer Ending” or something to that effect.

    I think having such headings alone is a good way to remind people that the Bible wasn’t just handed down fully-formed from heaven, but was written over time and added to by human beings.

  • Jeff

    That’s not quite the right way to think about it; I think it’s universally acknowledged that Mark is a unitary work, and that the ending (v9-20) is not original to that work, because it doesn’t appear in any of the earliest manuscripts. However, there are quite a few scholars who think that the work didn’t originally end with v8 either, but that the original ending must have been lost somewhere early in the transmission process.

  • Wednesday

    If you’re interested in learning just a little bit about things like
    the “long” ending of mark, the dubious authorship of 1&2 Timothy,
    and a few other things that biblical _scholars_ know but the general
    public doesn’t, I recommend some of Bart Ehrman’s books, especially
    Misquoting Jesus. (Start with that one if you can — it’s kind of an introduction to everything else.)

    The descriptions and titles really try to make them sound OMG SCANDAL CONTROVERSY!!!, but the content really isn’t — Misquoting Jesus is just an introduction for non-scholars to how scholars try to determine what the original versions of books of the New Testament said, and for the most part it seem he picks examples where there’s a modern scholarly consensus. The criticisms that I’ve seen of the book seem to all boil down to “he says the Bible was was written and copied by humans, some who made mistakes and others who had their own agenda! Blasphemy!”

    (Although if anyone can suggest a companion reading to Ehrman on the same subjects, I’d be interested.)

    Some of his later books are pushing a less-agreed-upon-perspective — in Forged, he makes the case that contrary to modern biblical scholarly attitudes, forgery was NOT considered acceptable in ancient times. (I’m pretty sure the forged passages within the Bible that he discusses _are_ fairly widely recognized as Not By Their Original Authors; what’s controversial is that a lot of scholars wouldn’t use the term “forged”.)

  • Jeff

    The best popular-level book I’ve come across is Reinventing Jesus by Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace. It has a bigger picture in view than just the textual criticism piece, but it does address that in some detail as well.

  • Asha

    Heh. I was one of those bruised reeds. I can say that going to college after a life of living in a Southern Baptist bubble had me having panic attacks. Of course, my general depression helped with that, too, but after a lifetime of being a good little girl who read ahead in her Sunday School book and actually reading the entire Bible through… I realized stuff stopped making sense. It was absolutely horrible and shocking. I felt cut off and afloat. I realized that the stuff they told me to guard my heart again?

    Yeah. Much more complicated than just ‘keep praying about it.’
    Losing faith was one of the hardest things in my life, and it happened at a time when I also came to the realization that, while I loved my parents, they were human. My mom, who had been the source of wisdom and faith for me, was actually a lot of my problem. My alcoholic dad, once he sobered up after a long bout of pure hell because we realized he was bipolar, wasn’t as bad a guy as I had been trained by my mom to believe.

    Yeah. This bruised reed broke pretty hard.

  • AnonaMiss

    Hugs if you’d like them.

  • Asha

    Thanks. *shrugs* I regret not being exposed to this flavor of Christianity as a child. It might have saved me some bitterness. But my feelings towards Christianity are mixed up with my overall complicated relationship with my parents and family and it’s hard to separate the two.

    Again, thanks for the hugs. LOL, I need to stop being so emo about it.

  • Wednesday

    Thanks for the recommendation!

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Just a thought because you mention the Episcopal church – there’s a four-year educational program for lay people sponsored by the Episcopal church called “Education for Ministry” (ministry in the sense of service, not ordination). The first two years focus specifically on the Bible. I’ve been through EfM and found it very informative about the issues you’re concerned about (also very spiritually formative, but that’s a slightly different matter).

    The program isn’t offered everywhere, and it isn’t cheap (which probably explains why it isn’t everywhere), but you might want to ask your rector if s/he knows of a class within reach of you. Just sayin’.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Been there, and it is a jolt – but there’s life on the other side. More hugs as needed.

  • Asha

    Thanks. Not sure if I can trust ANY religion after that, but at least I can see the value in them now.

  • LL

    Not to make light of your difficulties at all (and you are entitled to your emo-ness, everybody gets emo every now and then), but another way of saying “losing faith” is “gaining wisdom.”

    Realizing people lied to you (whether they meant to or simply passed along ridiculous bullshit in the guise of religion) is not particularly pleasant, but it does teach you to recognize the bullshit more quickly the next time you see it.

    It’s not a loss. It’s a gain. “Losing faith” is what people invested in the status quo call it. To stigmatize it as a bad thing to realize that most of our “authorities” (both secular and non) do not deserve our fealty.

  • LL

    I’ve probably told this story before, but (quickly): when I was in college (a Methodist-affiliated school) we were required to take a couple religion classes. Actual classes, not Sunday school. One of the ones I took was History of Biblical Literature. I had already pretty much decided I was an atheist but I had no objection to the classes. They were required, it was just another class to me. They were both among the most interesting of all the classes I took. I had no idea about the complexity of biblical literature. None whatsoever (my childhood was not dominated by fundyism, thankfully, but I did grow up in Oklahoma, which was even less progressive in the 1980s than it is now).

    By that time, my mother was deep in the throes of fundyism (and she’s been with that church now for 25-30 years). When I mentioned some of the stuff I had learned in the biblical literature class, she was horrified. See, to her (and all the people in her church), there’s one Bible. That’s it. One. And all the stuff in it came straight from God. Not people who lived thousands of years apart and wrote in different languages, but God. No versions. Nothing left out.

    As far as I know, she still believes this crap. We don’t discuss it. No reason to, really.

    And in case you think I’m judging her too harshly, she sent me an email a couple days ago warning me not to use the “Muslim” stamp the U.S. Postal Service has now (supposedly). Try as I might, I can’t figure out WTF was Muslim about it (the email included a picture), but whatever, I trashed the email. So, she’s still swimming around in the crazy.

  • Ben English

    My New King James Bible (2001 Zondervan) has a subhead between 16:8 and 16:9 saying that it wasn’t found in the earliest manuscripts. I knew of its disputed authenticity long before I actually put my fundamentalist upbringing aside.

  • Could it be the latest Eid stamp that she’s worked up about? But that seems far too logical – if you saw a picture and you’re still baffled about the connection to Islam, it probably wasn’t the Eid stamp with its beautiful calligraphy.

  • Ivkra

    Thanks! When I’ve the time, I certainly shall.

  • Ivkra

    Heh. Thank you!

    I am enjoying the journey, and oh, my God, it is so much better when you do not have to make it alone. I feel like after most of my life wandering and communicating by letter with distant fellow travelers, I have suddenly been swept up by a joyful caravan. …or something. And all of the yes to sudden moments of stonedish awe.

  • Fusina

    Company along the way is good–in that at least, the story of Adam and Eve is very true…It is NOT good for man or woman to be alone… So again, welcome to the journey. May you have many moments of awe–and for one of them, someone posted a link to the mating dance of the peacock spider, which I highly recommend watching. This world hath many wondrous things–and it seems Australia has most of the most strange and interesting ones…

  • Ivkra

    Thank you! I doubt that would happen anytime soon – I R Broke College Student – but it’s a good thing to know. I’m thinking just the class (inquirer’s class I think it’s called?) will help immensely. Our rector is a really awesome guy who’s fine with being peppered with questions.

  • Ivkra

    It really, really is. And thank you so much, and I wish you all joy and wonder on your journey as well. ^^

  • esmerelda_ogg

    That is a lovely design.

  • Rissa

    Ugh, yes. The teacher who had my class last year was a die hard KJV-only type. I cleared no fewer than five copies from the classroom shelves, along with a huge box of Chick tracts.
    Public school is not quite the hotbed of secular humanist indoctrination the more extreme right-wing homeschooling types would have you believe. Most days I wish it were.

  • tricksterson

    Why doesn’t she want you to use it? I can think of two possible reasons and something tells me the less rational one is the more likely:
    1: It was issued on 9/11/11 and she feels it’s insulting to the vitims of the terrorist attack. This would make me roll my eyes but at least it makes some kind of sense.
    2: She thinks that contact with it will somehow magically tuurn you Muslim.

  • James Snapp, Jr.

    For what it’s worth, I’m willing to defend the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20, pretty much anywhere, anytime. The faculty lounge is full of parrots laboring under the misconception that Metzger’s notes are fair and balanced, and that the ESV Study Bible’s annotator for Mark (Hans Bayer) knew what he was writing about. Meanwhile the children have noticed — at least, some of them have — that the geniuses who made the ESV allowed a very obvious false claim to circulate in the footnotes to Mark 16:9-20 for ten years. Maybe they don’t know what they’re talking about, and are engaged in groupthink, taking tangential swipes at Mark 16:9-20 in semi-related discussions (and articles, and blog-posts) but never really giving their readers a clear, focused view of the relevant evidence.

  • James Snapp, Jr.

    Jeff – “It doesn’t appear in any of the earliest manuscripts,” you say? Who told you that lie, you poor misinformed soul? It’s supported by Codices A, C, D, and W. The only early Greek MSS of Mark 16 that don’t have any text from Mark 16:9-20 are Vaticanus (which has a prolonged blank space after 16:8) and Sinatiicus (which has replacement-pages at this point).

  • James Snapp, Jr.

    Um — Bart Ehrman said that Mark 16:9-20 is the product of scribes in the Middle Ages. They must have possessed time-machines, inasmuch as Mark 16:19 was specifically quoted by Irenaeus around the year 184 (which is, btw, over a century before the production-date of the earliest extant MS of Mark 16). Ehrman molds the evidence. Don’t say you weren’t told.

  • AnonaMiss

    I disagree. Manticores are clearly better than unicorns, for the following reasons:

    * Manticores have poison. Unicorns aren’t poisonous.
    * Manticores have neither rape nor slut-shaming as their raison d’etre.
    * Manticores have a ton of rows of teeth! Like a shark! Rarr!
    * Lion with a scorpion tail, versus horse with a narwhal horn. I mean, seriously? No contest.