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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Sheffield and some odd comments attributed to BW3

Many things have been said about the situation at Sheffield and many, many nice things. Predictably enough, let's focus on the negative... In a recent Christianity Today article there were a couple of strange comments but none more annoying than the following attributed to Ben Witherington III.

Other faculty [at Sheffield] were "bent on the deconstruction of the Bible, and indeed of their students' faith," according to Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary.

I do not know if Witherington said these things but this is a direct quotation and I don't know if it is one of those Dever-style attempts at being 'provocative'. If Witherington did not say such things or if he was ripped out of context then presumably he has cause for some complaint against the way he was portrayed because this reads like a pretty nasty dig. Whatever, whoever is responsible for such a weird slur is deeply inaccurate. I have been in Sheffield for five years and I have never come across anything that might reasonably be called ‘deconstructing’ our students’ faith, never mind the idea of being ‘bent on' the deconstruction of 'their students’ faith’. I know retired members of the Department who have been at Sheffield for many, many years and I would be amazed if they were ‘bent on' the deconstruction of 'their students’ faith’. In fact, members of staff at Sheffield, past and present, believing and non-believing, have a well-known and excellent relationship with former students, many of whom are evangelical and many of whom profess some kind of faith.

Students raise such questions of faith regularly and good for them – they discuss and debate these issues openly with one another. One of the striking things about the recent student reaction was that there was unity, from atheists and agnostics to conservative evangelicals and charismatics, united in defence of the academic study of the Bible. When I put the Witherington quotation to a group of students the reaction was one of incredulity and it was laughed off. I have many evangelical students and the issue of faith rarely comes up. Their work is judged on whether it is well-argued or not. It is not nice to see such an obvious inaccuracy/slur in print and I hope a fellow New Testament scholar is not responsible for such insultingly inaccurate sentiments. If Witherington did say such a thing then he clearly knows nothing about the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield.

10 Comments:

Blogger John Lyons said...

Amen to that, James. I spent most of the 1990s in the Department and have no hesitation in echoing your comments.

Provocative questions were always asked, and some liked to tease occasionally as part of that. But the students also had their say. I especially remember staff at one point in that era being quizzed at a series of lunchtime meetings about their own faith or lack of it. (I still have the tapes of that.) The feeling of Sheffield staff, it always seemed to me, was that the Bible was a document that raised enough difficult questions of its own for the faithful. There was no deliberate attempt to destroy faith (many in the department over that period have had faith), but there was a deliberate attempt to show students some of the things that are in the Bible in a more critical light. Some students did lose their faith in Sheffield, perhaps as a result of that process of introduction. But I suspect this is – or should be - the case wherever a critical study of the Bible is taught because so many students have a faith based on some form of simplistic bibliolatry (i.e. one where the Bible is a nice book). Should they be left in peace with that? Well, not in a secular British University. Hard questions should be asked of the text and of those who have used it, and that is what they have signed up for when they joined the course.

Lastly, and perhaps more importantly in the light of the quotations you mention, there was no doubt in Sheffield that you could discuss your faith (or any issues that you had with it) openly with the staff members of the department and receive a very sympathetic and supportive, but still critical response – no soft soap there! This is probably not what some Christian faculty elsewhere would think of as support. But really, how much are you helping your student if you only prop up a fragile faith based on unrealistic views of the Bible and of the world around them. There is a reason why the evangelical churches have difficulty in retaining people long-term, and the tendency to try to cocoon people from the difficulties of life is a large part of it.

November 06, 2009

 
OpenID missivesfrommarx said...

Right on. Keep up the good fight.

November 06, 2009

 
Anonymous steph said...

I wonder what Collin Hansen could possibly gain by making such a thing up. He would, of course, have every reason to repeat what was said to him. Simply blitheringly appalling.

November 06, 2009

 
Anonymous steph said...

this is what he said:

Hi Stephanie:

This is not the venue for addressing this matter.
I've had an email exchange with David Clines about this and its been sorted.

Blessings, Ben W.

?

November 07, 2009

 
Blogger John Lyons said...

What I find interesting reading the piece is how at ease these evangelicals are with the potential demise of Sheffield. There would be plenty of other places for good evangelicals to go to, it is claimed.

Two problems there, it seems to me. (1) A lot of evangelicals have gone to Sheffield over the years, and been exposed to stuff they probably would have found in very few, if any, of the places that are being referred to. That must have helped evangelical arguments surely. The better ones, at least! (2) There is no recognition in such comments about the uniqueness of Sheffield or the value of what it stands for. Would so many people around the world write in to the VC if Biblical Studies in Bristol (or Asbury) was being closed down? Hell, no.

This disconnect between the evangelicals concerned and those who were so concerned that they wrote to the VC in Sheffield says something really quite interesting about the scholarly world that these people inhabit. If Sheffield can be so easily discarded, then so can the scholarship that it stands for. And that I find very sad. The only conclusion I can draw here is that such scholars value apologetics far more than they value polemics. Yet without both, Christian biblical studies is hardly scholarship (or Christian!) at all. It merely tends towards repeating the tried and tested formulas, regardless of the new questions the world has for it.

Christianity, if there is any truth in it all must value the search for truth, even if it tends to see it as tainted by human pride. To do otherwise is to restrict the role of the Spirit to that of an internal sectarian guide. That is, as my catholic friends would point out, a very inadequate pneumatology indeed.

Of course, many evangelicals do not fit in such a category, and many have come to Sheffield, which has always been better for having them around. Long may that continue.

Damn, I feel like Geoff Hudson, I have written so much here, James. And some ranting and preaching too. Maybe I should take up blogging!

November 07, 2009

 
Anonymous steph said...

Now I am excitedly awaiting an apology and have posted another comment on bw3. "Thank you Ben. We can look forward to a public apology from someone soon then".

November 07, 2009

 
Anonymous steph said...

I can't believe this. He has replied with this, and what's more the attributed comments are correctly attributed!!!!!

' Dear Stephanie



I doubt there will be a public apology. There are too many wounded in action to account for. Honestly Stephanie, Sheffield did not act wisely in not hiring folks like Loveday Alexander or Andrew Lincoln once they were gone, as they at least nurtured people in their Christian faith'



AGGGGHHHHHH That an American thinks he can appoint who independent universities in England ought to be scandalous. This is outrageous.

November 07, 2009

 
Blogger Jorunn Økland said...

I still find the best comment you convey from BW3, Steph, to be the one on things being "sorted". I just want to draw everyone's attention to the fact that in (t)his world, old gentlemen's agreements at the back room is still what counts! Amazing!
Such agreements clearly are more important than public discussion, clear and transparent arguments, apologies, clarifications and the like. But this is perhaps representative of how things work in evangelical christianity?

November 07, 2009

 
Anonymous steph said...

I know - that was bizarre! Don't worry your pretty little heads, the grown ups have 'sorted' it. Back room old gentlemen's agreement indeed. What was 'sorted'?

November 08, 2009

 
Anonymous steph said...

Jorunn - he's just deleted the entire conversation from his blog. That says alot for his integrity.

November 08, 2009

 

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