Is There a Such Thing as a Code of Ethics in Academia?  by Michele Stopera Freyhauf

One of things that has dismayed me since I began graduate school and started focusing my study on the Bible, is how much sensationalism exists. We are told in the academy not to use Wikipedia or watch the History Channel. The first, as we know, is unreliable due to the fact that anyone can enter information and make changes. The other caters to the general public. What compounds this problem is the fact that scholars, many times – even reputable ones – appear on these shows. Sometimes creative licenses are exercised by the producer distorting or otherwise shifting the message of what the scholar was trying to explain. Other times, scholars will just give the producers and the public exactly what they want to hear and thus perpetuating myths rooted in literalism.


Cave in the Church of the Apocalypse in Patmos, Greece

This is not the only time this issues manifests.  The other time I encountered this is when I travel to sacred or holy sites in the Middle East.  The people in charge of sites may want raise money and increase tourism – so they give the people what they want.  What do I mean by this?  Walking into a place that has a story whether true or not provides pilgrims a sense of awe and wonder.

Certainly I am not saying that this experience should be diminished or should be taken away. What I am saying is that we should be a bit more truthful in our descriptions and remove the shroud of literalism that seems to fuel tourism and not faith. What was difficult for me when visiting Patmos is the rhetoric surrounding the island. It may or may not have been where John had his visions, but certainly the mystique surrounding the Church of the Apocalypse seems to perpetuate the literalism that surrounds the Book of Revelation as being prophetic in dealing with the end times.  Moreover, the vendors around the Church certainly focus their merchandise to support this myth.  However, while I study the Book of Revelation and teach that it is something other than prophetic, a person visits the island and the church, are told that it is prophetic – who is a person to believe?   Me or the religious order running the Church or the vendors living on the island?

This also happens at dig sites.  If a tourist is led by a guide or lead at a holy site being excavated and they tell them what they want to hear so they come back and tell their friends, who has more creditability – me or the person who guides on the site?  When scholars like myself, write about a topic that seems to gel with what the commonly held view of the academy, and goes against literalism or fundamentalist beliefs, we become heretics in relation to the information being fed by the sensationalism on the History Channel and the tourist industry.  So the popular view does not change and the academic view is left on the margins and Biblical literalism wins.

Why should I care?  When people buy into the literalism of Eve as the source of humanity’s downfall or scripture that tells women to be submissive to their husbands and to not speak in Church and refuse to accept the text for what was actually meant to be (a revealed word to the reader, not a history book, novel, or book of ethics), how are we able to break the chains that continue to fuelMichelangelo,_Creation_of_Eve_01 the fire of prejudice and oppression? We see these myths permeating society and bleeding into doctrines of the Church; so it is very important, to promote social change, change perception, promote interfaith unity, and the reasons go on.

How do we make progress then?  The only way to make progress in the area of religion is to do what we do in the classroom, distinguish what a religion of faith is from religion of history. People need to be open to that notion. Moreover, I also think it is important to really take the time to understand other faith traditions – only then will the commonalities emerge and we can see that we really all want the same thing.

Finally, I think it is critical to study scripture through a myriad of lenses and really invest in your faith or belief. I tell my students to invest in their own belief systems and take ownership in their faith. We investigate new cars before we buy them and will not readily take the word of a salesman or the person selling the vehicle, why would a person turn a blind eye to their our faith?

This is an issue I have wrestled with since stepping back on the college campus many years ago. I am not sure if it is my many decades working in the legal field, where there is an ethical standard in place, or my focus and training as more of a historian than a theologian, where things are more factual and less subjective. So I put this issue out for discussion. Where is the balance and what is the answer? Should there be a code of ethics in academia? and if so, what should it be?

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies and Ursuline College’s Department of Religious Studies. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele is the 2015 recipient of the P. E. MacAllister Excavation Fellowship where she participated in the Bethsaida Archaeology Project.  Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013 and 2014). She also wrote “The Catholic Church and Social Media: Embracing [Fighting] a Feminist Ideological Theo-Ethical Discourse and Discursive Activism” that appears in the recently released book, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century: Technology, Dialogue, and Expanding Borders, edited by Gina Messina-Dysert and Rosemary Radford Ruether. Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.



Categories: Academics, Academy, Archaeology, Authorship, Belief, Bible, Ethics, Gender, Gender and Power, General, Identity Construction, Interreligious dialogue, Patriarchy, Politics, Postcolonialism, Reform, Scholarship, Scripture, Women and Scholarship, Women's Agency

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7 replies

  1. Interesting post. I think it is important to distinguish between owners of sites (government or church in the cases you mention), licensed guides, and vendors. Of course they influence each other.

    Having led academic tours in Crete using a feminist lens, I am amazed that tour guides and tour books still speak of “King Minos” sitting on the throne in the “Palace of Knossos.” I teach that Knossos was a Sacred Center not a Palace, that the King Minos mentioned in the Iliad had nothing to do with Minoan Crete (the name itself being a misnomer); that the Throne Room as found dates from the Mycenean re-occupation; and that it more likely that a Priestess sat on the throne than a King or a Queen.

    However, the reasons for the longevity of the traditional interpretation are complex. The main one is that patriarchal assumptions influence the government that owns and manages the site, the tour guide schools that educate the tour guides, and perhaps most importantly, the scholars on whom the other two actors rely.

    In addition, it is not a simple matter of “I am right and they are wrong.” It has to do with interpretations and paradigms of interpretation, what theory and what evidence is credited.

    You are right of course that tourists could be unsettled by being told that ancient Crete was an egalitarian matriarchy that worshipped the Goddess as the power of birth, death, and regeneration. Habits of thought influence cultures and relationships, and new ideas can be revolutionary.

    By the way I use Wikepedia almost every day. I do not take its word as gospel, but on the other hand, I do not take the word of scholars with books from academic presses as gospel either. Every source needs to be evaluated. But to dismiss Wikepedia out of nis to me quite silly. It should not be the only source cited, but for the most part (my experience) it provides a useful service.

    I would rather my students look up the dates for the Trojan War or terms like heuristic or hermeneutical on Wikepedia than for they to read on not understanding what they are reading.


    • Carol, just to mention that a survey showed that only 15% of the authors at Wikipedia are women. Wikipedia has promised to bring that number up to at least 25% by next year. But I wonder why the smaller numbers, is there some sort of boy’s club at Wiki, or are women hesitant to publish there, maybe dismissing it as a bonafide place to contribute their scholarship.


      • My understanding is that anyone, particularly a woman, even more particularly a goddess woman, who attempts to contribute to Wikipedia is subjected to scathing insults from the Wiki “experts” until she gives up. I considered it a few years ago (I thought to correct some Wiki sites with information from other Wiki sites) and decided I didn’t have the energy for that kind of abuse. Going back to Michele’s statement, I would not say that Wikipedia “is unreliable due to the fact that anyone can enter information and make changes” but rather, as Carol says, that Wikipedia is written by people with particular points of view that need to be evaluated in the same way that any other information is evaluated.


  2. Very interesting post! I agree that, almost no matter where we go, there seems to be a really strong focus on telling people what they want to read or hear. But I’ve never done any religious tourism.

    I use Wikipedia to fact check things the authors of books I’m editing write about, but my use is mostly to look up places (to see if my authors spell the names of cities correctly, for example) and historical dates, which can be checked in other places, too. I also use Wikipedia to look up plays and musicals I’m going to see. I quit watching the History Channel because they seem to like military history more than anything else. I got really tired of men with bows and arrows or guns.


  3. Thanks, Michele, just a comment on where you say: “I also think it is important to really take the time to understand other faith traditions – only then will the commonalities emerge and we can see that we really all want the same thing.”

    Very important insight. And not only the understanding of Western faith traditions, but also the study of the traditions of the Far East, for example,Taoism and Zen, which I believe can be exceedingly helpful, especially as regards integrating the love of nature, as an essential part of our spiritual practice.


  4. It seems that tour guides at various sites have vested interests in keeping the myths going. There are tours of Monticello, that definitely avoid all critique of the secular saint Jefferson.
    But you can bring a critical lens to what is left out, or what story is pushed forward.

    Winchester Mystery House outside San Jose, CA is one such place. The going mythology is that Sarah Winchester, heir the Winchester Rifle fortune, felt she had to placate ghosts and keep building eccentric stairways to nowhere in the house, but I listened carefully to the tour guide and curious bits of info came out— the fact the Sarah applied for, as I recall, over 100 patents for inventions that were granted….. compare how a tour guide would report this on a tour of Thomas Edison’s home…..

    I’d say the entire history that floats around so called “sacred sites” is so contaminated with toxic patriarchal shills to keep the gullible pilgrims happy, is something that scholars can challenge. And don’t forget they want donations, they want more pilgrims and they like to sell loads and loads of sacred trinkets at Lourdes, the Disneyland of all sacred places.

    I made it a point to return to the Winchester Mystery house a few years later, and I challenged the male tour guide on belittling the accomplishments of a 19th century woman inventor who might have used “spirits” as a way to sneak in research, patents and inventive power. A woman of that era would not easily have had access to labs or the adulation of the male centered invention narratives of that time “Watson I need your help” probably really came out as “Damn it shit et etc Watson get the hell in here I burned my hand with acid.”

    The point is, if it centers men and male myths about their so called “spiritual power” or “King Midas” of goldfinger legend, then you need to question the entire history / tour guide male focused BIG LIE of the past. Personally I’d rather just watch James Bond and “Goldfinger” in all its hysterical over the top sexist glory than waste time in fakeland, I mean Holy Land.


  5. Thanks for posting about this vital topic, Michele. You bring up many layers and facets, I think, about how people understand their particular faith traditions. Faith traditions always begin with a story. How that story is “read” and interpreted varies depending on the needs of you, the indivual, and/or the community.

    Regarding visiting “religious sites,” you say, “Walking into a place that has a story whether true or not provides pilgrims a sense of awe and wonder.” Absolutely! Isn’t that how stories work? We create meaning from stories, using our imaginations, in order to meet all kinds of needs–emotional, social, psychological, etc. I think it is important to realize that this is the function of myth/story. Religious stories may hearken back to “days of long, long ago,” but who can verify as to what really went down?

    I share your concern when you state that “scholars will just give the producers [History Channel] and the public exactly what they want to hear and thus perpetuating myths rooted in literalism.” Not all scholars think or believe alike. The bigger issue, I believe, is to understand that “religion” is not history, nor is it science, but works through symbols–an artistic genre.


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