Peter Enns is a fellow Patheosian. Ooh, I like that. Patheosian. We also have the same literary agent, editor, and publisher. In spite of that, I’ve never met him. But I’ve admired him from afar. So I’m excited to post this email interview that I conducted with him.
1. I love your book. You have the rare skill of being able to translate serious biblical scholarship into light-hearted and witty prose. Have you always been funny?
Not really. I had to take classes in funny during college and remedial classes in funny at night school. But after a lot of hard work, it’s beginning to pay off. So let that be a lesson to you young people out there, you can achieve anything if you apply yourself and keep at it.
All kidding aside, I’ve always been a bit of a jokester and it’s gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion, but sometimes it can lead to new insights and growth.
Of course, not everyone laughs at the things that make me laugh. For example, in my new book, The Bible Tells Me So, I compare the rulebook view of the Bible to a fake Chanel bag. Some people might be offended by this, but others – well the humor can disarm people’s defensiveness and open up a dialogue. Humor takes the familiar and twists it just enough that it becomes unfamiliar, so you can see it from a different angle.
Humor can also annoy people, which is my reason for getting up in the morning.
2. Are you tired of the Bible? I mean, seriously, do you ever get sick of it?
Because Bible is what I “do,” there have been times when I needed a break, and breaks are healthy. But generally speaking, the answer to your question is “no.”
The Bible still attracts and fascinates me. It remains full of surprises on many levels—historical, spiritual and on a literary level. It invites me to commune with God and I don’t mean angelic choirs and visions, but by “working” the Bible, or wrestling with it, as a means of understanding who I am and who God is.
I understand why people can get sick of the Bible. It is long, ancient, and in places downright weird, and it can quickly get very difficult to know how to connect with it.
And that is made all the worse if they’ve been given a set of unrealistic expectations about it — For example: it always has to be historically accurate; it never contradicts itself; it always gives absolute moral commands.
Holding onto a Bible like that can be exhausting. So sometimes they need a break—and I believe God wants them to take it.
I wish more people would take a break, especially those who use the Bible as a light saber against others.
3. It was big news in my corner of the world when you were terminated at Westminster Seminary. Then you were a freelance scholar for a while, and then you landed at Eastern University. I was kind of surprised that you ended up at another evangelical institution. In what way(s) do you consider yourself an evangelical?
Yeah, it was big news in my corner of the world, too—namely my house.
First, a small matter in the larger picture – let me clarify that I wasn’t terminated. I resigned from WTS, which is a process I initiated months before matters were made public. Now, it’s fair to say I was “pushed to resigned,” because my decision to resign came on the heels of relentless pressure — behind the scenes as well as in plain view — that made functioning at WTS, let alone working in some semblance of community, impossible.
Let me also clarify that Westminster isn’t technically an evangelical institution, even if there is an overlapping agenda at times. It is a Calvinist institution and its theological roots are in the Reformation — i.e., pre-modern and pre-critical. WTS was founded in 1929, in the midst of the modernist-fundamentalist controversies, which gives WTS (along with other similar institutions) its particular flavor: a preoccupation with defending and propagating its pre-modern theological tradition in a modern context.
Throughout its history, in various ways, WTS has straddled the line between the defensive posture of its fundamentalist origins and a more outward-looking constructive theology. The latter reigned during my student days there in the late 80s and especially during most of my faculty years under former president Sam Logan. Beginning in the early 2000s, however, after Logan’s controversial firing, the institution’s deep fundamentalist impulse began to re-established itself.
I only point all this out to explain that I have not moved to “another evangelical institution.” Eastern University and WTS are quite dissimilar, almost opposite models of what it means to do theology and grow Christians. And I think it’s fair to say that either school would be horrified to be lumped into the same category as the other.
I left a school that had returned to its fundamentalist roots and ended up, by the grace of God, at an evangelical school with much broader parameters and diversity among its faculty than most other Christian colleges I can think of.
As for your last question, like many others out there, I consider myself evangelical with a lower case “e” and not the upper case, mainstream Evangelical (which suggests participation in various culture wars and defenses of fine-point narrow orthodoxies). I see myself as part of a developing kind of evangelical “response” among those nurtured within that broad tradition but who do not see in older iterations of that tradition a true explanatory power for engaging and understanding the world we live in.
I am evangelical by being post-Evangelical, if that makes sense. We probably need a scorecard to keep track of all this.
I was a member of ETS for years but let my membership lapse around 2007 because I could no longer in good conscience reaffirm their doctrinal statement that the Bible is inerrant “in the original autographs.” Others who think like me can sign that statement in good conscience, but my gut was telling me it was a shell game. We don’t have original autographs, and God seems to be fine with that. And so putting all that stress on something God himself hasn’t seen fit to give the church strikes me as a failure to maintain proper theological focus.
Plus, I was beginning to articulate in my own mind at the time that casting the discussion over scripture into an “inerrancy vs. errancy” mold was something scripture itself resists (which is a main theme of The Bible Tells Me So). That mold is more a product of the Evangelical sub-culture than anything, and I no longer wanted to identify with that Evangelical agenda. I was in a conversation I no longer want to have, and so I stopped.
Still, for some reason, known only in the depths of the mind of God, I have spoken at ETS a few times since then as an invited speaker — and they give you a different color nametag to make sure true members can easily identify you and to avoid violating purity laws (“Thou shalt not touch, even the hem of his tweed jacket, one of the different colored badge, nor shall you befriend him.”).
To be fair, though, each time I have spoken at ETS the atmosphere has been congenial and even supportive. A critical mass of members stays because they want to be part of change rather than hand over the organization to extremists.
So, I don’t attend ETS but I do go to SBL each year, along with IBR (Institute for Biblical Research), which is a more theologically progressive group of biblical scholars than ETS that embrace historical criticism (albeit in varying degrees).
SBL is more interesting to me because I can connect with people who think and live very differently than I do. It also isn’t as male dominated as ETS (or IBR, but to a lesser extent) and it is more racially diverse. The whole SBL experience reminds me that I’m just one person in a huge world and humbles me because generally I am no big deal. And I always come back from SBL stimulated to read, write, and think more broadly rather than fretting over protecting something.
5. Describe the most arcane, obscure paper you’ve ever listened to (or presented) at an academic guild meeting.
Does anybody go to papers at SBL? I thought we all just went for the donuts and discounts on books?
I’ve never given an arcane paper, thank you very much, and I don’t go listen to them. If it’s a good paper, it will get published soon enough and I can read it to myself far more quickly than they can read it to me in that scholarly I’m-giving-a-paper tone of voice. I do go listen to well known speakers I’ve never heard live before, and that’s always fun.
Actually, one of the things I do with others at SBL is to find the dumbest, most obscure, over-reaching, I’m-taking-myself-far-too-seriously paper titles we can find among the hundreds of options. That is always such fun.
Usually one or two presenters will drop the F-word in the title, apparently thinking this lends credibility and a courageous tone, though not realizing this happens every year (especially at AAR, which is SBL’s less well-behaved cousin) and just makes them look like Adam Sandler. Others may throw in words no one has ever seen before (made up?) to make you feel small.
This year’s winners haven’t been announced because the paper titles haven’t been released (apparently it’s a security issue), and I wish I could remember past years’ winners, but they sound something like, “Weight-Watchers and Dietary Restrictions in Leviticus: A (Post)-Colonial (Sub)Liminal (Post)Postmodern Neopragmatic Reading of the 2014 Ikea Catalog(ue).” And all that in 20 minutes with 10 minutes for questions.