Beyond Eurocentrism—A Future for Canadian Biblical Studies

On May 31, 2021 I had the privilege of giving my presidential address to the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies (CSBS). This is something every outgoing president does at the end of their term.

A Delayed Presidential Address

I was in the unusual situation of being president of CSBS for two consecutive years (2019–21), something unprecedented in the eighty-eight year history of the Society (which was formed in 1933). In every previous case, a person is elected to become vice-president for a year, then serves as president for the following year, then gives their presidential address.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancelation of the 2020 annual meeting, at which we would have had the election of new officers (those whose terms were up) and at which I would have given my presidential address. Without a formal election of new officers, all the elected officers whose term was up continued pro tem until the next annual meeting.

The executive decided that despite the ongoing pandemic we couldn’t go another year without an annual meeting. But because of the pandemic, they decided that the 2021 annual meeting would be purely virtual.

Since I hadn’t been able to give my presidential address in 2020, I gave it (virtually) in 2021.

A Different Presidential Address

However, it was on a different topic from what I had originally planned.

In 2020 I had planned to focus my presidential address on the Aqedah (Genesis 22), in anticipation of the book I was writing, entitled Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021).

However, new issues arose in the CSBS, along with some external prods, which resulted in me giving a presentation on the past and future of biblical studies in Canada.

In “Beyond Eurocentrism: A Future for Canadian Biblical Studies,” I traced the history of biblical studies in Canada and challenged biblical scholars in Canada to explicitly bring their social and religious context to bear on their academic work, while allowing the Bible to speak to their context.

Here is the abstract of my paper:

The history of Canadian biblical studies, like biblical studies south of the border, has been defined by the attempt to protect academic study of the Bible from religious and ecclesiastical control. Although legitimate in its time, this has resulted in the fictitious ideal of an academic discipline uncontaminated by the contemporary contexts of the interpreter. Not only is such an ideal unattainable (since everyone brings their contexts, explicitly or implicitly, to their academic work), it is ethically problematic, since it has legitimated the Eurocentric orientation of the field as normative, resulting in the marginalization of alternative voices and perspectives.

Thankfully, biblical scholars have begun to take cognizance of how we read the Bible in terms of existential questions arising from our social and ecclesial locations. Besides many publications on the subject of contextual biblical studies over the past thirty years (perhaps beginning with Stony the Road We Trod), the Society of Biblical Literature sponsored two seminars in 2020 called “#Black Scholars Matter.”

Canadian biblical scholars, however, have been slower than our American counterparts to recognize the importance of the interpreter’s context for our field. The question this essay raises is whether we can envision a future for Canadian biblical studies beyond Eurocentrism.

Although I was addressing the Canadian context, I drew significantly on my Jamaican background (including Jamaican traditions of resistance to power) in order to make a particular proposal for the practice of biblical studies in Canada.

You can watch the video of my presidential address here.

The text of the address is being published in the Canadian-American Theological Review. I will post a link here when it is available.

Podcast Interview on the Image of God and the “Cultural Mandate”—Everyday Christianity

I was recently interviewed by Jason Estopinal, who runs a website called “The Laymen’s Lounge.” The website hosts podcasts and other resources dedicated to addressing issues of faith, theology, and biblical interpretation that have a direct bearing on the everyday lives of Christians. This is theology for ordinary laypeople, not for pastors, professional theologians, or scholars (but that doesn’t mean anything is dumbed down).

Here is Jason’s description of what the website is all about:

The Laymen’s Lounge is a resource for everyday Christians (those who make up the majority of the Church) to learn how to do everyday life with other everyday theologians. Theology is for laymen too: all people of faith need to seek understanding of how work and play, at home, the office, the garden, or anywhere else, relates to the God of the gospel and the gospel of God.

Theology is about paying attention to God’s presence and activity in all areas of life. Here in the Lounge you will find help in answering key questions, such as “What is the gospel?” and “what is God like?” We will bring scholars, professors, pastors, and missionaries into the lounge to help us wrestle with questions and issues that are part and parcel of daily living.

This site is for anyone who wants to think harder about the Christian faith and how to live as Christians.

Please feel free to stay as long as you like, and encourage others – friends, family, and even grandma (if she knows how to log on to the internet) – to visit. If they do, they’ll find everyday theology for everyday Christians living everyday life.

Jason had been trying to get me to do an interview from before the pandemic, but lots of things got in the way. I was finally interviewed for the Laymen’s Lounge on the topic of being made in the image of God (with a focus on the “cultural mandate” or how our faith affects everyday life).

Here is Jason’s introduction to the interview (taken from the website):

Listen in as we sit down with Dr. J. Richard Middleton to discuss the forest and the trees of being image-bearers, God’s purpose for the world, God’s generosity, the great change that took place the moment God resolved to create humanity and good Jamaican and world reggae for your listening pleasure.

Jason lives in Hawaii, so it was great having him welcome me at the start of the podcast with Aloha!

He is also a music fan and knows quite a bit about reggae. He posted links to three reggae songs (two from Jamaica, one from South Africa) on his website right below the interview.

The Importance of Lament for Understanding Genesis 22

This is the second in a series of blog posts where I’ll outline the argument of my new book, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God, which is scheduled to be published by Baker Academic this fall (October or November 2021).

This is a follow-up to my post called, Abraham’s Silence–Why Genesis 22 Has Been a Puzzle to Me.

Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible

Although my book Abraham’s Silence is explicitly focused on interpreting Genesis 22 (known as the Aqedah or the Binding of Isaac), the book begins by examining how the Bible views the realities of suffering and especially how it affirms the validity of our challenging God about suffering, in bold prayer.

After an introductory chapter (called “Does Abraham’s Silence Matter?”), Part 1 of the book addresses “Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible.”

This section includes two chapters, one on the existential power of the lament palms as Israel’s normative “protocol” for processing personal and communal pain in relationship with God (chap. 1: “Voices from the Ragged Edge”) and one on the intercession of Moses and the prophets on behalf of Israel, when God was about to bring judgment on his people (chap. 2: “God’s Loyal Opposition”).

Lament Psalms and the Processing of Pain

My problems with Abraham began when I discovered the lament psalms.

I starting studying and teaching the lament psalms many years ago, after having gone through a time of personal darkness. I lost my way in life and began to doubt God’s goodness.

As a result, I stopped praying; this wasn’t intentional on my part. But I now realize that it was a natural outcome of the fact that I was unsure whether God was trustworthy.

So I found it immensely encouraging to learn about the lament psalms. Fully a third of the psalms in the Bible are laments or complaints, prayers from the ragged edge of life that articulate pain honestly to God. These prayers not only complain to God, but they ask for redress.

Lament prayer revitalized my faith at a time when it was imperiled. Ever since then, I’ve been teaching the lament psalms as model modes of prayer for sustaining our relationship with God in difficult times.

Along the way, I wrote a short meditation on lament, called “Voices from the Ragged Edge: How the Psalms Can Help Us Process Pain” (1994). I expanded this meditation for the chapter on lament psalms as a resource for developing and sustaining a robust life of faith.

Moses’s Boldness before God at the Golden Calf

And then there’s Moses, who interceded for Israel after the idolatry of the Golden Calf—and thereby prevented God from annulling the covenant and destroying the people (Exodus 32–34).

This is how Psalm 106:23 remembers the incident:

Therefore [God] said he would destroy them—
    had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
    to turn away his wrath from destroying them.

Moses interceded again after the people refused to enter the Promised Land when the spies told them of the giants who lived there; once again God accepted Moses’s prayer and did not destroy them (Numbers 14–15).

After Moses, various prophets deliver a message of judgment to Israel, calling for repentance; they then turn to God and ask for mercy and postponed judgment, to give the people a chance to repent.

Jeremiah is so persistent that God has to tell him three times to stop interceding, since God can’t bring judgment if he keeps praying.

Later, God laments in Ezekiel 22:30 about the lack of prophetic intercession:

I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one.” 

My study of lament psalms and the intercession of Moses and the prophets (along with my own personal experience of lament prayer) has led me to believe that that the God of the Bible values vigorous dialogue partners. This God invites us to approach the divine throne room with courage, expressing our genuine needs, including our complaints.

So the resounding question of my book is, Why didn’t Abraham do this? Why didn’t he bring his lament to God over the command to sacrifice his son? Why didn’t he intercede for Isaac?

In my next blog post (The Contrast between Job and Abraham), I’ll explain how the book of Job figures into all of this.