Brian Howell is the Dean of Studies and Research at British and Foreign Bible Society
There is a saying that goes, ‘The heart cannot rejoice in what the mind rejects.’ Of course, that doesn’t mean that we are over-passionate about all things logical, but it does point to a certain barrier to faith, and one that involves Bible Advocacy.
In a Western context, the field of higher education presents its own unique challenges. The first of these is an increasingly antagonistic secularist mind-set, drawn from the Enlightenment period in which many current universities were birthed. It lends to the view that faith is antithetical to science as a means of gaining knowledge about the world. Because of this presupposition, which informs the approach of the practitioners of most academic disciplines, the Bible itself is viewed with suspicion as a ‘religious’ book, or at most, a relic only fit for the study of history. And yet, theology was not only once known as the ‘queen of the sciences,’ but was often what inspired and gave freedom for the very investigations that birthed the modern academic disciplines.
Because of this presupposition, the Bible itself is viewed with suspicion as a ‘religious’ book, or at most, a relic only fit for the study of history.
Secondly, there is the tyranny of the pound. Universities, once places to go to develop the entire person, are now seen almost solely as businesses. Departments are evaluated upon the income they bring into the university and degrees are ranked according to the prospective income of their graduate recipients. This shift in how we think about education itself has greatly impacted the field. Indeed, enrolment for theology and religious studies programmes has gone steadily downward for years, and the UK has lost at least two storied programmes in just the last year.
So, how do we approach such a vast and antagonistic culture to promote the continuing relevance of the Bible? First, as with all things, comes relationship. We knew we needed to get in the door, so, we created small awards for those doing degrees in Bible. Not only did the universities welcome this, both financially and to raise the profile of their programmes, but this also allowed us to honour students, just like other subject areas did, and most importantly, to engage with the faculty itself.
What do we want to say to academics? Part of the battle is letting them know that we are not out to convert anyone to the Christian faith. Though many of us would welcome that result – and it indeed may follow from renewed engagement with the Scriptures – but, within the ivory tower, we must have a different priority and way of operating. Our goal here is to promote the Bible as worthy of academic engagement. This is because, if a culture no longer perceives the Bible as a core text, as one so important that serious study of other disciplines is compromised without it, then it will, as Eugene Peterson said, ‘get rudely elbowed to the margins of society’. It is easier to dismiss personally what is ignored academically.
If a culture no longer perceives the Bible as a core text, as one so important that serious study of other disciplines is compromised without it, then it will, as Eugene Peterson said, ‘get rudely elbowed to the margins of society’.
Partly, I see our problem here as wanting to do the whole job ourselves. That is, we’d love to get the Bible in someone’s hands, in their heart language, and help them understand what it says and how this impacts their lives, and lead them to faith in Christ, and disciple them, etc. But Jesus speaks of a sower and a reaper (John 4.37 – 38). Rarely do we do both tasks, especially with the same group of people. I see this work as sowing the seeds by removing intellectual obstacles to people engaging with the Bible, whether those are arguments against its truth or against its relevance. This makes it easier for those who engage directly with academics, but even more so the society that has learned from those academics, to view the Bible as something that is credible and substantive. Though we cannot lead people to faith, consider how hard that task would be in the world in which the Bible is seen as so irrelevant and naïve that no one will ever listen to it. That is the value of advocacy in higher education, and why we limit our goals to the promotion of serious Bible engagement.
I see this work as sowing the seeds by removing intellectual obstacles to people engaging with the Bible, whether those are arguments against its truth or against its relevance.
Next, we needed to know how best to engage the lecturers and researchers themselves. We cannot do advocacy for the Bible in Higher Education, or any field, by ourselves. We need to be in the business of making and supporting advocates – especially of people who have more expertise and standing in their field than we ever will.
In talking with academics, one of the primary hurdles we discovered that they face in the UK is known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF). As most programmes within the university require government funding, the government came up with a system to evaluate the research that academics do, to be able to allocate more funds to the best research. One of the key elements within this scheme is known as ‘cultural impact’. That is, the government requires researchers not only to submit their publications, but also to demonstrate how broadly their research has been disseminated and been integrated into society itself. Research cannot stay in the ivory tower. So, Bible Society, being in touch with over 20,000 church leaders and interested lay people, decided to start a journal, The Bible in TransMission. In this journal, we take contemporary issues such as migration or digital impact upon humans, and do an issue on how the Bible intersects with the topic. We invite various academics to write an article, often borne of the research they are currently doing. In this way, we can help them demonstrate to the REF that their research has impact. Thus, we have positioned ourselves to be an impact partner. Bringing something to meet their practical needs goes a long way to gaining an ear for what we have to say.
In this journal, we take contemporary issues such as migration or digital impact upon humans, and do an issue on how the Bible intersects with the topic.
Finally, we have more recently restructured our research grant programme to take applicants on subjects related to biblical advocacy. In it, we sponsor PhD students who research either topics related to Bible and culture, or conversely, Bible and the church. Within these broad topics, we may have specific topics that will take precedence in our evaluation, according to a particular campaign or focus we need to explore at Bible Society. We then work to help these students disseminate their research, both in house, as well as to relevant para-church and church organisations. In this way, we not only gain insight into the culture we are trying to reach, but we gain advocates for the Bible who will one day be seated in the very positions of influence we seek to reach.
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