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How I Have Been Snagged by the Seat of My Pants While Reading the Bible

by Walter Wink

Walter Wink is professor at Auburn Theological Seminary, New York City. He received his Th.D. from Union Theological Semianry, has been active in peace movements throughout the world, and is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. His books include: The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millenium (1999), Homosexuality and Christian Faith (1999), and Cracking the Gnostic Code (1993). This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 24, 1975, pp. 816-819. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Ninth in a Series: New Turns in Religious Thought

The otherwise even flow of my life as a scholar-for-the-church has so far hit two snags. Both have irreversibly changed my course.

I was hooked by the first snag in 1962. Having completed work on my Ph.D. except for the dissertation, I was at last established as pastor of a church in southeast Texas, trying to write my thesis with one hand and take care of pastoral duties with the other. The church was generous in allowing me time to study -- and I needed that time for my psychic health, because I had walked in on a congregation in a shambles. It was no little relief to be able to retreat into the first century and thus escape the conflict and pain of the parish. The worse the storm outside, the more I fled to my study inside. Within nine months I had the writing finished.

Once during that period the chairman of the church’s official board asked me why I never preached on any of the New Testament passages which I was so exhaustively exegeting. I didn’t know. It was odd: I couldn’t say why, but I was very certain that I could not. It would be somehow -- wrong. It would be to sully the texts, to contaminate them. It would seem almost a prostitution to take these texts, which I had analyzed with the purest objectivity of which I was capable, and to apply them somehow to this bickering yet beloved parish. No. I could not explain why, but I could not preach on those texts.

Five years passed. I was preaching two different sermons every Sunday at first, then (mercifully) only one. In five years I must have preached upwards of 350 sermons. Yet on only a couple of occasions could I bring myself to use those dissertation texts.

The Bankruptcy of Historical Criticism

Now it is characteristic of most of us that when we uncover such anomalies as these, we dismiss them as aberrations of our own personal experience. That was where I was inclined to leave it. After all, I could scarcely blame my teachers for the problem. No more profoundly engaged teacher has taught Bible in our time than my Old Testament professor, James Muilenburg. And in New Testament there was the existentially involved Chris Beker, and the perceptively human work of John Knox. And all the rest -- W. D. Davies, Lou Martyn, Samuel Terrien, George Landes -- were deeply committed to the truth claims of the Scriptures. So I dismissed my snag as the peculiar problem of an escapist parson.

Then in 1967 Union Theological Seminary invited me back to teach New Testament. In this more exposed setting, dealing with students embroiled in war resistance, black economic development, curriculum reform, and the "Columbia Bust" of 1968, the question of the Bible’s relevance for modern life was stridently and insistently posed. At the same time I was meeting more and more pastors, to whom I would put the question -- at first very tentatively, almost as if to make conversation: What role does historical criticism really play in your preaching, your personal Bible study, your leadership in congregational study? The answers varied widely, but enough were sufficiently disturbing that my sense of the anomaly grew. I was not off the snag. I was impaled on it, and so were they. I would never be rid of it till I plunged into the water and dug out its roots.

The fruit of that effort was published in 1973 under the title The Bible in Human Transformation: Toward a New Paradigm for Biblical Study (Fortress). I had at last located what was for me at the base of the anomaly, thanks to the help of others who had pointed the way. Simply but quite precisely put, the historical-critical approach to biblical study had become bankrupt. Not dead: the critical tools have a potential usefulness, if they can only be brought under new management. But on the whole, the American scholarly scene is one of frenetic decadence, with the publication of vast numbers of articles and books which fewer and fewer people read. Most scholars no longer address the lived experience of actual people in the churches or society. Instead they address the current questions of their peers in the professional scholarly guild. The net result has been a gathering malaise, a crisis of morale, and a dawning recognition that what was once a vital contribution to the emancipation of people from the constrictions of dogmatism has become a new constriction in its own right.

I heard this report: the chairman of a university religion department, a biblical scholar by specialization, walked into the office of a colleague and flung my book on his desk.

"Have you read this?"
"Then read it and tell me what you think."
The next day the colleague dropped in on the chairman. "Well, I read it."
"What do you think?"
"He’s right, of course.
"Do you realize what that means for me?"

"You must have already known that, or you wouldn’t have asked me what I thought." At this point my memory, already no doubt enlarging on the tradition, breaks down. When it picks up again, the chairman is confiding that he doesn’t know for whom he’s writing books any longer, or why anyone would want to read them.

Caught in the Web of Objectivism

That dialogue tells me that my once private snag has now gathered quite a company. Hooked are hundreds of scholars, whose original intention in entering biblical studies has long since been compromised, squeezed out or suppressed. Most of us found ourselves drawn to the Bible. It chose us, as it were, or something in it chose us, something that comes to speech in it. We were attracted to it -- not out of curiosity or mere historical interest, but because we believed it could evoke human transformation. Biblical scholarship would be our ministry, our self-offering to the Kingdom of God.

Then ineluctably we found ourselves jettisoning the very questions and interests that led us to begin. We were caught in the web of intellectual objectivism, with its pretense of detachment, disembodied observation and uninvolvement as the ideal stance of the researcher. Bultmann had already so clearly exposed the false consciousness of objectivism that it seems incredible that, rather than being in decline, it is flourishing. I can only guess that one key reason is the history of denominational pluralism in America, and the understandable reluctance of universities and colleges to permit the teaching of religion in a way that smacked of sectarianism. Hence objectivism with a vengeance: the more religion could be taught as an exact science, the less offense it would cause. (This at a time when the physical sciences were beginning to repudiate objectivism!)

Other departments in the university felt no such pressures. In the department of philosophy a logical positivist might be busy demonstrating the folly of all previous philosophies prior to the moment he himself began his doctoral studies. Over in psychology, a Skinnerian or a Freudian unabashedly propounds his own school’s thought as if it were normative for the entire field. No one objects, because that is what these scholars are paid to do: to be professors, to represent a position -- to incarnate it even, if they are capable, yet with enough critical distance to be open to criticism and dialogue and even to changing one’s mind.

But over in the religion department scholars may still be churning out papers justifying the study of religion on the college campus. And any teachers of religion who are effective are so because they have courageously refused to knuckle under to this absurd demand for detached, uninvolved, disinterested study of the ultimate questions of existence.

I had finally named the anomaly for myself. It was the inability to study these texts in such a way that the intention of the texts themselves was honored. It was the trained incapacity to permit these texts to evoke personal and social change. It was not my professors who had trained this capacity out of me; I had caught the disease from the general ethos of the field, the meetings and journals of the professional societies and the endless flood of monographs.

But it was not enough to criticize the old mode of biblical scholarship. What was needed was an alternative, a new paradigm, a way beyond the anomaly. I was planning a "normal" scholarly sabbatical in Tübingen, Germany, when two of my former students persuaded me to look into a program in San Francisco with the Guild for Psychological Studies. Using Jungian depth psychology as an aid in interpretation, Elizabeth Howes and her colleagues were studying the Bible in a total context aimed at the healing of persons. I visited that summer, found it the answer to my need, and reversed directions on my sabbatical.

The approach of the Guild for Psychological Studies provided just the distance I needed in order to fight free of the hold which the objectivist paradigm still exercised over me. From my studies during that sabbatical and during each of five summers, I not only received necessary training in the Guild’s approach for use in my own work but was able to articulate an alternative to the current scholarly paradigm which, I hoped, might be at least one way to release others who were caught on the snag. From the outpouring of responses I must say that it seems to have hit home.

The Glass Wall of Individualism

Meanwhile, in the flow, I had hit another snag, as important as the first and as intractable. But by that time I had learned to respect my snags, to believe in them as a certain kind of voice. So I honored this one.

I had, in my book, discussed the importance of "exegeting the exegete," of bringing under analysis not only the analyst’s attitudes and reactions to the text, but also his social situation, his vested interests, the political implications of his or her work -- especially if it has none. I had no clear idea of how to proceed, nor had any of my subsequent work helped me significantly. In fact my preoccupation with psychological insights tended to eclipse social and political questions.

I thought to myself, "Surely it is the people involved; they are not politically aware. But then I led Bible study with the most politically aware and intellectually astute of all our students; I worked with an ecumenical and interracial group in East Harlem; I went to every conceivable class of church. Still it did not happen. No matter how much I wanted discussion to verge on the social, it generally tended to remain privatized, individual, personal. At first the sheer excitement of what was happening to people at a personal level mesmerized me. I was willing to leave it at that. Later they would become social activists, I hoped.

Finally I had to concede that it was not going to happen, and for exactly the same reason that it almost never happens to Billy Graham’s converts, or people in psychotherapy or the human potential movement, or devotees of Eastern religions, or simply students of theology.

It would not happen because it could not happen. There has been erected an invisible glass wall between ourselves and the social system. Whenever we try to move against the system itself, we hit the glass wall, we are deflected, and we rise to transcend the discomfort of injustice or institutional evil by purely private means. It is the ideology of individualism, and in this country it exists to protect racism, sexism and the class system of capitalism.

An Accursed Freedom

I did not discover this on my own. For three years I had puzzled over the anomaly: I want to address social, political and economic realities, yet in the groups I lead we seem to move further and further into ourselves. What is happening is good; but why can’t we connect it with the social? I pressed the question with Professor Beverly Harrison. She put into my hands The Hidden Injuries of Class, by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb (Vintage, 1973). Suddenly I saw what I’d been looking at without really comprehending.

Sennett and Cobb’s study focused on working-class males in Boston. Generally accused of being materialistic by intellectual friends and foes alike, these blue- and white-collar workers were in fact trying to amass goods, get promoted, buy two cars and move to the suburbs because these are the things that society tells them they must do in order to win a sense of personal dignity and worth. But in fact even success in society’s terms does not bring the longed-for satisfaction:

This fear of being summoned before some hidden bar of judgment and being found inadequate infects the lives of people who are coping perfectly well from day to day; it is a matter of hidden weight, a hidden anxiety, in the quality of experience, a matter of feeling inadequately in control where an observer making material calculations would conclude the working man had adequate control [pp. 33 f.].

For these laborers, freedom is no longer merely the freedom to eat. Now it is a matter of how much choice one has, and the development of the human potential of people in what is for them a post-scarcity society. Such people do not feel that their work allows them to express enough that is unique in themselves to win others’ respect as individuals. They envy "cultured" people whom society has put in a position to develop their "insides." And yet their outrage that society permits this inequity of opportunity rebounds on them as self-doubt and accusation: if only I’d tried harder in school, if only I’d had the breaks. It is an accursed freedom, which tells everyone in this society, rich and poor, plumber and professor, that he or she must validate the self in order to win the respect of others and of oneself. Yet the system will not and cannot deliver that respect, even when all the players play the game by the rules.

The system says, for example, that if you strive to excel, like Horatio Alger, you will succeed; if you fail, you have no one to blame but yourself. But in a given plant there may be 3,000 workers eligible for six foremen’s jobs over a period of several years. Perhaps 1,500 would like to be promoted; only about 150 may be genuinely qualified. Six are selected. The others -- do they lead a revolt? Organize a factory takeover by workers? No. They blame themselves. They are angry, and unsure of their right to be angry.

‘Flawed Humanism’

It is the glass wall. Just at the moment when inequities might be confronted, the ideology of individualism blocks the view. And now the plot thickens. For it was just this dynamic which I saw happening week after week in my Bible study classes. Somewhere, way back there, we were all told that if we succeeded, it was by the grace of God; if we failed, we had only ourselves to blame. But more: we were told that all were created equal. That is the voice of the Enlightenment. If all were created equal, then by George,

those who are the most intelligent or able or competent have demonstrated more character in manifesting a potential that flows through all; don’t they deserve to be treated with more respect than others, or at least to be entrusted with more power? This would be only reasonable, after all; they showed themselves to be better in practice when all began the same [p. 255].

The basis of class inequality proves in our case to be -- belief in equality!

This "flawed humanism," as Sennett and Cobb call it, provides a perverse justification of the inequities of the class system, and confirms those on the bottom or middle or even uppermost rungs in their anxiety about their lives. We do not in fact deserve to be respected. We must earn it. The authors cannot restrain themselves; they finally call it by its theological name: justification through works.

Given such a situation, the preaching of the good news of God’s free acceptance of each of us should come as the word of a real deliverance. And there is no better way to break the karma of this cycle of self-deprecation. The message of justification by grace was never more timely in the whole history of the church.

But -- and this is a huge qualifier -- if that message of justification by God’s undeserved love is preached apart from an unmasking of the actual power relations which have aggravated these feelings to the level of a social neurosis; if people are released from the rat race of upward mobility only privatistically, with no critique of the economic and social ideology that stimulates such desperate cravings; if people are liberated from a bad sense of themselves without any sense of mission to change the conditions that waste human beings in such a way, then justification by faith becomes a mystification of the actual power relations, and the Christian gospel is indeed the opiate of the masses. And study of the Bible which avoids facing these issues becomes a justification of the status quo.

Still Caught on the Snag

Do not misunderstand me. I am not merely referring to the need for social involvement. Nor am I speaking of making the Bible relevant to modern society. The anomaly is far deeper; it has to do with the way the very social systems themselves are continually rendered invisible, perpetually withdrawing themselves from examination, leaving us only ourselves to blame or change.

We must not be deceived; the anomaly has not disappeared. We are still skewered on the snag. But we can now see what it is that has us hooked. It is the ideology of individualism, the flawed humanism of the Enlightenment, and an interpretation of Christianity which resolutely avoids addressing the principalities and powers. I have learned (and am still learning) from Elizabeth Howes and others something about how persons can relate to the Source of their own transformation. Now I am beginning to delve for this new set of roots. I am content to stay at the task for as long as it takes. The very integrity of the Good News is at stake.

It is not, of course, a task that one can manage alone. The vicious individualism of scholarship itself must be superseded; new kinds of relationships and communities must be formed. Liberation theologians, to be sure, have seen this for some time. But the large task of changing the way we wrestle with the Bible has scarcely even been acknowledged. (The first serious attempt is that of José Porifirio Miranda, Marx and the Bible [Orbis, 1974].) It must be begun, despite the enormous resistance of the biblical guild. The resistance is understandable. We cannot change our scholarship unless we change our lives.

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