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Saturday, January 30, 2010

All things bright and beautiful?

Whilst reading this recent piece in the Guardian by John Milbank and Philip Blond, and brought to our attention by Roland Boer, I was, for some reason, reminded of that famous hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful. Perhaps that verse usually passed over will make a comeback?
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.


[Most hymnals [would once] omit the following verse-]

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Real men don’t email frequently: Stephan Huller and a new twist on blogging and gender from a (relatively) creative sexual imagination

There has been a weird blog dispute over Stephan Huller not taking down a private email sent by Maurice Casey. Stephan has gone on the rampage since being asked by Maurice’s PhD student Stephanie Fisher to remove the comments. The back story is covered very well by Joel Watts and by Dilettante Hobby Horse. Stephan’s comments I refer to below are from the following links (though some do go missing so these links could be out-of-date at anytime):




There is more going on on Joel Watts' blog (comments section) and some very weird comments on Mike Bird's blog (NOT by Mike I hasten to add - I suspect he hasn't noticed yet because it is on an old blogpost which Stephan has been commenting on).

A lot of what is said focuses on telling the truth and I think Stephan might just be reading a little too much into things and a very interesting kind of reading between the lines at that. That’s getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s ease our way in gently. Here’s one of Stephan’s milder comments:
I also noticed that she goes on people's blogs anonymously

Am I missing something here? How does Stephan know if she is acting, erm, anonymously? As far as I know Steph's comments have all been under her own name. Here is part of Stephan’s defence:
I have been working as part of a team developing a documentary on the controversy surrounding the Mar Saba document. Members of our team sent out emails to prominent scholars asking them to tell us what they thought of Roger Viklund's article on Stephen Carlson's shoddy methodology. They were explicitly told that their comments were 'on the record' - i.e. that they would be published in some form as part of our efforts to see what the opinion of scholarship is both of Viklund's analysis and the Mar Saba document itself. On the team there is myself, Charley Richardson and one other person.

I have been posting these comments at my blog. I figure the email said they would be on the record. We are working as a team. Why not give people a sample of some of the comments we thought were part of the public record.

I got the email from Charley Richardson too and it is a little vaguer than what Stephan says but he’s more or less right on the issue of public record. But...Maurice Casey very clearly said he didn’t want to be part of the team so it seems a reasonable request to ask for Stephan to remove the comments (it seems Charley Richardson had no problem doing so). To be honest it is difficult to see why Stephan has got all angry about this: it is hardly a big ask. ‘I wonder if any of these comments were actually from Casey, even the original email,’ asks Stephan. Yes they were. He told me, hence I'm writing all this, in addition to Maurice not being a reader of blogs.

Stephan complains,
In today's email we see 'Professor Casey' say a rambling non-sequitur (which I can't possibly understand):
some busy professors do not find it [the Mar Saba document] significant enough to discuss. I do, but that’s a little bit in the next book, not as big a bit as Price, but knowledge could in my view advance a lot more quickly if people like that did not hold it up. Why have you no interest in telling the truth?
...Today after I wasn't interested in hearing from his live-in girlfriend, Casey suddenly decides he really is interested in Mar Saba document and compares himself to Robert Price.

I'm going to suggest that Casey *isn’t* comparing himself to Price and that he is saying that the section on Price in Casey’s next book is bigger than the section on Mar Saba...? We will come to the girlfriend issue soon.

Stephan dropped one of his bombshells which is the basis of his further polemic:
I have an expose on what it takes to ahead in scholarship. It would make me feel better about my plight as an ignored scholar. It would temporarily allow me to get revenge for all the inequities and injustices I see is at work in the field...
Why am I doing this? Is it because I am starting to lose my ideals? Yeah, maybe that it. There might have been a time once upon a time when I thought that I could change the world. Now I am inclined to believe that the whole world is a cesspool and maybe it was meant to be a cesspool from the very beginning, from the highest authority in the universe...
...Thank you Professor X for convincing me that it is all one big cesspool - but a cesspool in which people like you can pontificate about what reprobates people like me are for not being willing to play the game - playing the game, in which you sit on top of the hill as some deified God I might add.

This Professor X (shouldn’t that be Professor XXX? See below) sounds interesting. I’d quite like to see the evidence to back up the claim ‘...which people like you can pontificate about what reprobates people like me are for not being willing to play the game - playing the game, in which you sit on top of the hill as some deified God I might add...’

But that’s the easy bit...Stephan got a little giddy when thinking about all things sexual. It is based on this claim made by Stephan:
Stephanie Fisher is Maurice Casey's live-in girlfriend who regularly sits on his computer to correspond with people...

She isn’t his live-in girlfriend (or live-out). I know Steph helped Maurice when he was very ill and it is no surprise they are very good friends. I know both of them and have met with them in Nottingham on several occasions. I can also exclusively reveal that she uses her own computer. Stephan also writes the following:
... Well after that incident with that unnamed professor, his girlfriend and their tendency to expose the details of their personal life on my blog...

Hmmm, but didn’t Stephan also invent details of personal life? Well yes...and here is another interesting take on the whole episode (with reference made to ‘Professor X’):
But you know what, the words in his email that keep ringing in my ears are his accusation against my integrity as a scholar - 'Why have you no interest in telling the truth?'
Yeah, that's right. I have no interest in the truth. You are the truth teller, is that it? Why then do you have such issues with me telling the truth and keeping up those posts and those comments?
If I were really interested in the truth I wouldn't ask you for your opinion on all of this. I would instead practice learning how to give fellatio to some other old fuck who made a name for himself by writing some important paper twenty years ago... Yeah, that's right. If I wanted to take part in your bullshit world I would find me an old professor whose dreams and fantasies I could fulfill - like the way Carlson 'proved' his master's suspicions about the falseness of the Mar Saba document. I'd just learn to seek out another old professor and 'work together for a while,' until I became 'a wonderful personal friend' to him or her and provided services that he or she could get on a vacation to the Third World for the price of a new pair of shoes.

Now, those are some interesting suggestions to make in the context of telling the truth. I know I’m going to regret this, but, ahh, how does Stephan find out his details? I’m really going to regret mentioning this one, but does Stephan’s reasoning apply to all PhD students of the person he calls ‘Professor X’ who may have become personal friends and stayed at his house...?

This is good too:
At one point I naively asked him what his relationship with Stephanie was. Was she his daughter? ...What is so odd about this whole situation is that I offered to call Professor Casey at his home and actually went so far as to email 'him' my phone number so 'he' could contact me... If the real Professor Casey really wants me to take these down please call me. I sent an email with my phone number. If you can't afford the long distance send me your phone number and I will call you.

Who wouldn’t be straight on the phone to a stranger who has asked if they have daughter, invent them a girlfriend, talks about someone called Professor X and a bit of oral sex, not to mention conspiracy theories about ancient religion?

Perhaps the best bit was Stephan’s handling of gender issues, discussed in more detail on Dilettante Hobby Horse. Make of this what you will:
Do men really take exception to 'rudeness'? That's something women concern themselves with. It's unmanly to complain about another man being 'rude' to you.
The deluge of emails seemed un-manly. I told him I would take down the comments. There was nothing embarrassing about these comments. Why was I getting messages almost every five minutes at one point - very reminiscent of a hysterical woman...
Your girlfriend is bad news.

To keep thee from the evil woman, from the flattery of the tongue of a strange woman Psalm 6:24

Erm...er...um... eh?!! Then I think of Stephan’s invention of personal lives... Stephan asks, ‘I would be happy to hear any theories from anyone out there.’ Ok. Here’s one. I don’t like the frequent emailing inevitable in my job but I email all the time. So I’m wondering – assuming the Hullerite take on gender for one moment – if my dislike stems from being de-manly-ised? But then maybe without realising I’m...turning...into...a...hysterical...woman...

Right, enough rambling. Let’s boil it down to these questions:

Did Stephan invent the issue of the girlfriend relationship (and the implication of a sexual relationship) or does Stephan have access to information no one else does?

Did Professor X really ‘pontificate about what reprobates people like me are for not being willing to play the game’ (and recalling what Huller meant by ‘playing the game’)?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Jim West's Blog - An Obituary

The whole episode of the demise of Jim West's blog took me a little by surprise. When the link didn't work I wondered what was going on and I found out he was was bored with blogging, as he has repeated in different contexts. After that I found out about the pretty furious debate between Jim and John Loftus. I was a little surprised by that one because I always assumed Jim's posts on issues of atheism and atheist bloggers were, at least in part, jokey. I still think that is the case, though I admit some of us (e.g. me) have an unfortunate tendency to read irony into everything.

The internet has made the recent history of biblical scholarship a little weird, if not more entertaining. Who would have thought all the controversies, from Golb to Loftus, from the many Jeffrey Gibsons to NT Wrong, were possible fifteen years ago? But the internet and blogging, despite my own reservations, are having some impact on scholarship and Jim West has arguably been the most important figure in this context. And, as his blog was so distinctive, it meant that his postings were (not 'are' because they don't seem to be available) particularly helpful for ideological analysis of blogging, particularly as, intentionally or not, his blog brought out the perspectives of his opponents clearly when they reacted against him.

As any regular reader of his blog and his involvement on e-lists (he runs Biblical Studies and has managed to keep it going while others have faded) will know, Jim (like others) has given the very latest updates on the latest controversies involving biblical studies in the media. However, I think he has had a more important influence. His blog was, famously (in biblical studies terms), the most popular of all the biblioblogs and because of this he was able to promote some of the more interesting and creative scholarship (including, I am reliably informed, book sales of one book rocketing up [in biblical studies terms] after Jim reviewed it), some of which probably would not have gained a wider hearing otherwise. Few other bloggers had that influence. And when some of the issues facing academic departments became particularly problematic, Jim West's blog was the one which was able to muster massive amounts of support and attracted outside interest in the discipline.

That may sound like praise and obviously it is. But even some, if not all, of his enemies would have to admit that he has been an influential figure in biblical studies and in the ways I have suggested, would they not?

But wipe those tears from your eyes because not only does biblical studies have an interest in resurrection (though Jim is standing by his decision), here is the best quotation in all of the controversy: 'Jim West literally pissed me off' (John Loftus)

Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Decade in...NT/Biblical Studies!

Reviews of the year and decades are common in TV discussions of pop music and TV and are often cheap and nasty (though there are exceptions). So, you might argue that decades are just constructs etc and we could start at any point etc. But what better way to show that NT/biblical scholarship is as much embedded in cultural context as TV and pop music?

Oh, and just because something is distinctive to a decade, don't make it right or wrong.

The following are just some thoughts on trends and developments in NT studies/biblical studies over the past decade. There are plenty of other developments of course (blogging and online scholarship, gospel of Judas, more interest in GThomas and not simply as containing sources for understanding the historical Jesus) but here are merely a few...

One of the most notable things of the 00s has been the ‘secular’/atheist versus theological/believer/evangelical divide. This past decade has seen some of the most confessional or conservative books hit the mainstream in ways that (collectively) they would not in previous decades and have resulted in plenty of discussion and publicity. Perhaps the most striking example is Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God. Who will ever forget his raising the possibility that the dead saints of Jerusalem could really have risen from the dead? More seriously, Bauckham’s work on eyewitnesses has been another major example, as has the resurgence of the idea of the every early deification of Jesus. On the other side, there have been some high profile ‘secular’ and/or atheist approaches, such as Berlinerblau’s Secular Bible and Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies, with some fiery debates on the SBL Forum. Towards the end we saw the emergence of the Jesus Project with the involvement of some people who would question, or indeed deny, the existence of Jesus. Whether the ‘non-existence of Jesus’ gets taken up in the mainstream, or indeed by the Jesus Project, remains to be seen but it is lurking in the background of the mainstream in a way it has not before, at least in recent history. It seems clear enough that this rhetorically polarised scholarship is product partly of the major cultural debates over religion and atheism, esp. in the States, and the rise of both Intelligent Design and New Atheism. Contrast all this with debates over the Jesus Seminar which was more often than not was more polarised due to (very) liberal Christian versus the rest of Christendom (a exaggerate, I know, but you get the point.

At the end of the decade it seems that ‘memory’ and ‘cultural memory’ has become one of the dominant ways of discussing the development of biblical tradition and beyond. In terms of historical Jesus and earliest Christian history, and at the end of the last millennium, Crossan was a prominent example of someone pushing issues surrounding memory in The Birth of Earliest Christianity, and such issues were developed in a number of different ways. I think there are parallels with the ways in which form criticism was discussed, though on the issue of memory the conservative wing is, I think, presently in the ascendency in contrast to the heyday of form criticism. I caricature but... On the one hand, memory can be used (academically) to discuss the ways in which a given cultural context constructs the past with a range of influences which can say more about different subsequent cultural remembrance (just think of the mixed up ‘cultural memories’ surrounding the contemporary portrayals of the Nativity scene). On the other hand, memory has been used in a more conservative way in historical Jesus studies as a means of getting back to Jesus (memories, it is argued, tend to preserve the particular things about the individual or group). Think of work by Bauckham and Dunn, to name two high profile examples. For a more mediating position, let us never forget Rafael Rodriguez.

Memory is really the major distinctive feature of historical Jesus studies (again, see Bauckham and Dunn). In terms of a ‘type’ of Jesus (eschatological prophet, cynic-like philosopher) this past decade hasn’t had the high profile controversies of the 80s and 90s and it is perhaps telling that other (and related) controversies of note about the historical Jesus involve questions about, for instance, the resurrection and history in memory. In terms of the content of Jesus’ message, I’m not sure anything particularly distinctive has been high profile this decade and major scholars have been giving (apparently) more weight to older positions. Perhaps there has been more on social history. But even here this is more a working out of positions from the 80s and 90s rather than any spectacular advance. Some of us (i.e. me) would like to see more emphasis on historical Jesus questions in terms of broader social and economic change but I think this decade has further shown how scholars are more interested in focusing on descriptions of the individual, of the early church and of the social history, with social history, at least in historical Jesus studies, being more interested in illuminating the content of Jesus’ teaching, rather than explaining historical change. That said, a potentially distinctive move involves some of those associated with the Jesus Seminar becoming more associated with the Redescribing Christian Origins group where mythmaking rather than HJ has now become the key emphasis. But the interest in historical Jesus seems not to have died down and this past decade saw, of course, the launch of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.

As implied, there have been some developments in *reading* Jesus and NT scholarship in historical and cultural contexts, including ideological critiques, and beyond the old debates about ‘you’re liberal...well, you’re conservative...etc’ (though they remain, of course). While gathering momentum in the 90s, there is a more widespread awareness of the Nazi and fascist scholarship (see books and articles by Heschel, Casey, Head, Keeley and others) and the influence of such scholarship, even though this can sometimes be abused (e.g. the unfortunate and inaccurate comparisons of Nazi Jesuses with the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar!). The history of NT scholarship has been further analyzed in terms of quests and come up with a sort-of new idea, i.e. there are no new ideas. Ok, I caricature a little, but the once widely accepted idea of distinct quests (No Quest, Third Quest etc) with new and distinctive ideas is being hit hard (most famously Dale Allison’s critique – but there is more out there and more to come) as it seems much of what we might have thought as new has been said before. If you want a suggestion, I think it might be more fruitful to analyze the history of scholarship in terms of historical contexts and how scholarship functioned and functions as products of its time.

Perhaps because historical Jesus studies hasn’t said too much new in terms of the content of Jesus’ teaching (at least in high profile scholarship), and with an awareness that not much new has been said, that there has been a turn to the analysis of historical Jesus scholarship in books such as Sean Keeley, Racializing Jesus, Bill Arnal, The Symbolic Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, Misunderstood Jew, Ward Blanton, Displacing Christian Origins, my Jesus in an Age of Terror etc. I have also been working with a project at Oslo run by Halvor Moxnes where the historical, political and ideological contexts of Jesus and NT scholarship has been the focus with edited volumes led by Moxnes on Jesus beyond Nationalism and ideas about, and constructions of, ‘homeland’ and ‘Holy Land’ published/on their way.

As a special treat for certain readers and bloggers, I should note that there *might* have been a notable shift in who supports what in discussions of the Synoptic Problem. Q scholarship is still going strong and there have been plenty of major publications and reconstructions of Christian origins using Q. However, and I stress that this is more my perception than any scientific proof, but I wonder if an anti-Q movement has been gathering pace of late, particularly with the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre hypothesis. Even Maurice Casey’s Aramaic Approach to Q advocated a ‘Q’ in a very qualified and chaotic sense and with some sympathies for Goulder’s critique of Q and some hostility towards a fixed Q. I mentioned ‘perception’ because I am increasingly finding people agnostic about the whole issue and up for being persuaded. The end of the next decade might tell us a little more about who stands where on what.

Some of the old debates concerning the New Perspective have not gone way in Pauline studies, though there seems to be a further, though qualified, return of Old Perspective ideas. The other big debate in Pauline studies (and other areas of NT) is the role of empire and emperor cult etc, partly a product, no doubt, of the hardly ignorable impact of a Bush-led US empire, though a more hearty dose of postcolonial critique and/or Gramsci might have helped this (as started to happen in a more sustained way towards the end of the decade). Strangely weaving in and out of OP, NP, empire and power in Pauline studies was a partly pre-C21 movement in the study of Paul in continental philosophy. Here I’m thinking of Taubes, Badiou, Agamben, Žižek etc, and issues relating to Paul, universalism and Marxism. I cite this as a movement for the 00s *in biblical studies* because it has become a notable area in development, including collaborations between biblical scholars and critical theorists. Indeed this might be part of other trends where different ‘fringe’ topics have almost made their way into the mainstream after being used elsewhere in biblical studies and, of course, prior to that, in the humanities. The occasional use of postcolonial criticism in mainstream scholarship might be another obvious example, though Sugirtharajah’s work is being described as ‘still at the margins’.

Reception history has certainly caught on and may be one of the major areas where biblical studies will flourish in future given the sheer amount of material waiting to be analysed. There is the approach more associated with historical theology, esp. following Luz’s Matthew commentary (see e.g. Thiselton, Bockmuehl, Riches), a sub-category of which might be something like finding insight into the correct or original interpretation. Another sub-category might be a more sustained focus the role of readers or context in more unorthodox approaches to historical theology, outside the more ‘canonical’ tradition (e.g. Rowland). Then there is the anything goes approach (Lyons/Okland/others collaboration on Revelation is a recent example – and Revelation has become a notably popular choice of text), anything from cinema to pop music, from party politics to opera. Further methodological issues have also gathered pace: influence of text, influence of context, influence of tradition (and note they are similar sorts of questions which are asked, or ought to be asked of Christian origins). Why has reception history gathered pace? Maybe because there is only so much to be said with historical criticism of the NT after all this time (not really that big a collection of texts), maybe some people want to avoid the difficult faith questions raised by historical criticism, maybe it is a notable way of defending relevance and the dreaded ‘impact’. And this brings me on to something else...

I don’t like predicting the future but I will give an exception which might be particular to the UK and perhaps elsewhere in Europe. At the end of the decade, the humanities are not going to be supported anything like the way the sciences are. In the UK, the present New Labour govt are going to slash funding and the Tories (who may well be in power within six months) will be, if anything, worse. STEM subjects and those subjects which make an impact on society and culture (and that will be defined in terms of making a positive contribution to a certain definition of what society and culture ought to be) will be prioritized. This is not the greatest news for those who do not see education as a means of turning the population into middle management or selling the most popular subjects. So where will biblical studies fit into all this? On the one hand, there is a massive amount of confusion and ignorance over what biblical scholars do and biblical studies may well see itself as a target over the next decade. On the other hand, it can make the case for easily being one of the most ‘relevant’ subject areas (think of presidential elections in the US, the history of art, literature, cinema, the whole science versus religion debates, anything...). I don’t like this model of competing for what is deemed ‘relevant’ at all but this may be how things turn out in the next decade.

But let’s end on a happy note, and this especially for you, Geoff Hudson. This was the decade where NT Wrong came along. Can anyone top that in the 10s?

That's it, NY Eve...

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

RBL, History, Historical Criticism, Postmodernism, and Why We All Agree on Certain Things: A Special Heartwarming Big Blog for the Season of Good Will

I’m going try and enter this ongoing debate over ‘postmodernism’ versus ‘historical criticism’ by way of first defending myself (it’s not the only reason I blog but...) and then moving on to points involving various misunderstandings by suggesting there is, underneath the rhetoric, little difference in a certain kind of method involving history...if we worked assuming some points from the first half.

Leif Vaage recently made some comments on the book I did with Mike Bird, particularly about issues of history and how – hell fire! –the opponents in the book might actually, more or less, agree with one another, despite the rhetoric. I am not going to defend the book as such but instead I am going to critique Leif’s criticisms on history because I think almost everyone in the discipline, and arguably the humanities, is very similar in assessing historical (and perhaps most other) claims even if they think otherwise and so, as we will see, I think Leif’s comments need much more substance (and indeed clarification) to be useful.

Leif suggested that ‘it seemed to me that both Bird and Crossley equally are true believers when it comes to history as the arbiter of what is really real or truly true’. This seems to me to be a subtle rhetorical move (intentional or not). The book we wrote was assessing certain claims about the history of Christian origins. Leif has shifted this much more generally to ‘history as the arbiter of what is really real or truly true’. I don’t think that is fair, at least on the basis of what was written in the book. Speaking for myself, and I hope this doesn’t sound too obvious or stupid, but history was and is the arbiter of, well, history (you know what I mean). Let me spell this out a little more clearly (though still an obvious point). If we make arguments about the past (or present) we do so with reference to whatever supportive evidence we can amass or assume, or at least in theory. We will all go and disagree on many things but this is the principle. It applies to an introductory book such as the one under review, it applies to those using gender analysis, postcolonial critique, literary criticism, cultural studies, ideological analysis of scholarship or whatever. Using history is what people do when assessing claims that presidents, prime ministers and media tell us that our governments do not support ‘rogue states’ etc. We can go and check to see which illustrious figure supported which notorious dictator and when. More on this soon...

This approach to history, evidence, or whatever also applies Leif. In addition to applying to his published work, Leif recently gave a defence of the possibility of the Cynic-like Jesus thesis at a small and very interesting Oslo seminar where we were both present and he did so with reference to the possibility of cultural interactions in the Decapolis. He tried to persuade the audience with historical reconstruction and data. In other words, the same sort of thing I attempted and Mike attempted. Leif spoke about ‘this eminently modern form of knowledge’ but it is one most of us actually share in practice.

But it was Leif’s comment that the ‘arbiter of what is really real or truly true’ which really confused me, not least because the book was on the history of Christian origins not something more general (and vague?) and not on (say) the ethical teaching of the NT (actually the editor removed some such stuff because it was not deemed relevant). Is Leif suggesting something beyond history? Is it faith? Is he suggesting allegory? Is it mysticism or some equivalent? The poetic or aesthetics? If it is something like this, then I have some vague views on such things and wouldn’t particularly want to deprive people of their views of the world etc (as I said in the book and as I argued with reference to the resurrection) but that’s a different issue.

Leif concluded: ‘What would happen to their conversation, I finally wondered, if it were to include a more unbelieving practitioner of this eminently modern form of knowledge?’ Well, who might this be? Someone like Hayden White? Well, ok, but that would be a different book with different goals (a bit like many of those debates played out in history journals of the 80s and 90s). But even Hayden White had to assume the ‘eminently modern form of knowledge’: White was clear enough on this when it came to the Holocaust but also how else did White (successfully in many ways) document patterns in historical writing...? That seems a historical move to me (and that’s not a criticism). If it were a Keith Jenkins type Leif was alluding to then his would be too general to be focused on Christian origins as it would be at the heart of philosophy of history.

Ultimately, I have to say that I get a little suspicious when people critique others and give only the vaguest of reasons. It may or may not be modern and obvious to say this, but absence of a clear counter argument cannot really function as a useful counter or qualification. For reasons which might become clear below, I wonder if we are dealing with an ideological move in such labelling (a kind of rhetorical distancing without substance), the same way we find paralleled, as we will see, in the debates over ‘historical criticism’ and ‘postmodernism’, a suspicion heightened, it has to be said, by the lack of clarification of an alternative.

In case anyone doesn’t like the approach of ‘historicism’ which underlies what I do (and I do not have anyone particularly in mind now) I will give the following aside. During the massive anti-Iraq war protest in London, I remember being almightily pissed off when Jesse Jackson got up and gave a sort of epic prayer type thing and banged on (and on and on) about John Lennon and giving peace a chance or something which was as spectacularly high on rhetoric as it was low on useful detail to counter the pro-war arguments. I wanted the speakers to highlight continually things like Blair supporting the Saddam-like Islam Karimov, that he had never cared less about Iraqis until he was told to, the previous support for Saddam by US and UK govts etc. This was a change to get such views on TV and the media, especially important as this sort of stuff was not being thrown at Blair enough or even in seriously discussed in the media (at least not in any significant way) in the build up to the war. And as this was happening, Blair talked about morality etc and various ‘liberal-left’ journalists (notably in the Observer) supplied the propaganda to back Blair up. History (or: ‘historicism’) has shown, and did show, Blair to be a thoroughly deceitful man by measuring his arguments with what detail we know. Meanwhile, as Naomi Klein pointed out at the time, Levi’s Europe started cashing in by selling teddy bears with a peace symbol.

It is for reasons such as these that I (militantly) prefer ‘historicism’ to over reliance on rhetoric. It is reasons such as these that telling the truth about the past and establishing historical data are so important, to me at least. I do not think going down the Paul de Man route is very helpful. The combination of continually establishing and verifying ‘facts’ and data, and placing them in a broader economic and cultural context is one of the key reasons I like the approach of Noam Chomsky who is, rightly, relentless when it comes to such things and happily a child of (more enlightened side of) the Enlightenment.

Anyway, let’s get back on track. Leif adds, ‘I found them strikingly alike in their historicism and for this reason most of the time not that far apart or all that different from one another in their practice of interpretation.’ I’m again not entirely sure what Leif means here but if we are as similar as he thinks then it can only be in the sense described above. Actually, there is one major difference of interpretation between Mike and myself (supernatural aside). Now this point is important: *Mike tends to focus on ideas whereas socio-historical change guides my interpretative interest.* There are other approaches from social history I use, implicitly or explicitly. Issues concerning socio-economic change underpinned what I did and do. This is a significant difference and I keep pointing out how socio-economic causal issues and historical change are repeatedly ignored in NT studies and it might be that we have yet another example of such an approach being ignored...unless, of course, Leif means similarities in the sense I described above (I was explicit in my emphasis on socio-economic change and I think it would have been difficult to miss so we should probably assume Leif means similarities lie elsewhere).

If similarities lie elsewhere, such as in the kinds of ways described above (*and this issue is going to guide the rest of this blog entry*), I think Leif’s point is too banal to be useful in this context because it applies, perhaps, to most of us. And here I would include literary critics with no interest in ‘history’ and no interest in author because they are still trying to make a case based on evidence to show the plausibility of a given reading and even in some cases implicitly showing a text in history. Same difference, is it not? All a part of the same tapestry, is it not? So, again, are we seeing an ideological move in shunting us both together...? The two authors are both similar and different but where we are similar, it is in line with most others I imagine.

And this brings me on to the entertaining debate over postmodernism and historical criticism sparked off by George Aichele, Peter Miscall, and Richard Walsh’s JBL article (as someone pointed out, it may be a significant moment that this was published in JBL). Actually, I‘m not going to comment on that debate directly, interesting though it clearly is, but rather develop the above in light of some blogger comments. The reason I make the connection with the present debate is because I think the dichotomy, at least as presented in some of the discussion following the JBL article, is both right and wrong. Let’s start with wrong. My colleague Hugh Pyper wrote in the latest SBL Forum on the NASCAR Bible, not the stuff of traditional historical critics. Hugh is a big Derrida fan and would be most at home, I suppose, in the world of which might be labelled, and I mean this very generally, ‘deconstructionist’, ‘poststructuralist’ or whatever. Yet while he emphasises things differently to historical critics, I still think this isn’t dramatically different from the ways in which historical critics might try to support a case, look for evidence, see things embedded in history, look for broader cultural themes and so on. Besides, Hugh has also worked on areas which might be deemed more traditional historical criticism and he would never be contradictory, would he...?

Not dissimilarly, Deane Galbraith wrote on ‘Cyborg, Hauntology, Spectrality and the Bible’ where he looked at cultural issues involving things from NASA naming the first chimp sent into space to the film Chimps in Space, with issues biblical reference and ideology thrown in. Again, not the sort of thing found among traditional historical critics yet...I don’t know if Deane agrees or not, but I don’t see any significant difference from the kind of standard enough approach in the sense that the argument was bolstered by historical and ‘textual’ evidence, along with cultural traits and allusions, albeit with a creative slant (an interesting parallel might be made with some trends in the study of the OT in the NT). And let’s not forget that Deane has been one of the defenders (with qualification) of historical criticism and has blogged on more traditional historical critical issues (e.g. date of the Pentateuch).

And where would we fit a Marxist like Badiou into all this (or plenty of other Marxists)? Badiou is most associated with those interested in theory but as people point out, he is very much another child of the Enlightenment. Or Eagleton? He’s obviously interested in ‘theory’ but used some classic historical criticism in his intro to Jesus (actually a very NT Wrightian approach to Jesus in certain instances). Someone somewhere (this was a massive blog debate, so forgive me) also mentioned (fairly, I think) that Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality (or was it punishment? Nevermind, the point stands) was effectively ‘historicist’ (or something like that).

This blending of approaches should suggest, at the very least, that the seemingly radically different approaches are not necessarily so radically different after all. Other examples could be given. John Barclay, who has worked with traditional readings of texts, has also worked with postcolonial theory and Badiou’s ideas, and presumably he sees no contradiction in what he is doing. I personally see no problem using whatever I think works and if this means using something like postcolonial criticism and more traditional historical criticism, with x, y or z thrown in, then so be it. What’s the problem? Or have I missed the point? Aren’t, obviously, all the humanities trying to provide some insight into human beings and society...?

Roland Boer cites a dispute between certain people we call ‘minimalists’ and ‘maximalists’ (I really can’t be bothered checking the precise links and details, ok?) and each side throwing the label ‘postmodernist’ at one another. I don’t know anything about that particular dispute but I have read similar polemic levelled at the ‘minimalists’. Again, in addition to Roland’s points, I’d refer to my above points in the sense that both sides are actually very similar. So, both sides would use archaeology, biblical texts and so on but the major difference is that they interpret the evidence and issues, such as those concerning ‘state’ and dating, differently. The weird thing about this debate is that effectively if someone dates a text one scholar doesn’t like or interprets it differently then they are ‘postmodernists’. This sort of reasoning would, erm, make some famous nineteenth century scholarship ‘postmodernist’!

Another aside, this time on the terms being used... For ‘historical criticism’, simply read traditional critical approaches to the text etc. We all know what we mean, even if we don’t like the term, ok? For postmodernism, I am with Roland in following Jameson on the cultural logic of late capitalism. As it happens, I came across one strange use of ‘postmodern’ in a musical review of the year by a journalist I actually like but who claimed certain pop songs of the past decade were ‘postmodern’. I *think* I know what he meant, even if the word isn’t all that helpful, and even in the different world of musical culture (and isn’t the whole pop music phenomenon an excellent example of one manifestation of the cultural logic of late capitalism?). Anyway, my point...the labelling comes across as quite misplaced and so does not this specific placement of the label, rather than accepting the blanket idea of cultural logic, suggest some ideological move? In biblical studies (and the humanities) there is, after all, a lot of polemic on both ‘sides’...

And of course the issue of ‘objectivity’ has been running throughout the whole debate. My guess (as Deane Galbraith suggests via Barr) is that if most biblical scholars were asked about objectivity they would admit they were not claiming to be objective in the sense that they have no presuppositions (I prefer the objectivity debates to be framed in terms of neutrality and limited objectivity but that’s for another day). Indeed, plenty of those who might identify as historical critics just can’t wait to tell us that no one can do exegesis without presupposition, as if this is something new. That said, I wonder if the rhetoric might imply otherwise. The classic ‘review of scholarship’ sections of books can often, rightly or wrongly, and certainly if people aren’t careful, come across as the past was pretty wrong but, heroically, here’s what really happened... Indeed, from conferences etc and some of the scholarly rhetoric about ‘postmodernism’, it is clear that there is the perception that ‘postmodernist’ approaches are believed to be way too subjective and effectively involve making things up. But this must therefore imply something about the interpreter, must it not...? See also some of the discussion on Roland’s blog and the Dunedin School blog for claims made by scholars concerning ‘objectivity’.

But I said ‘right and wrong’ somewhere way, way above...From the Dunedin School, Deane combines the ideas of construction and fantastical othering and he is, I think, right to do so. If it is right that there is a lot in common across different approaches when do we get to the point where the difference is simply content and theme or that someone is more convinced by one method over another? Well maybe we are already there. I mean, not everyone is into trying to get behind the text to find out the life and teaching of Jesus, not everyone is interested in the ways gender is constructed in the NT, not everyone wants to analyse literary techniques without reference to historical events and overt historical influence, not everyone is into social history, and not everyone is interested in uncovering ideology and power, and so people may see themselves as doing very different things. Ok, fair enough. But how do people try to persuade their audience...? Is it really dramatically different in the ways in which many people believe...? Perhaps this partly a debate about *taste*...? And so this is where the debate sparked off by George Aichele, Peter Miscall, and Richard Walsh could be very useful: what are the ideological issues and moves in constructing a position (or, perhaps better, someone else’s position) as ‘historical critic’ or ‘postmodernist’? These issues, for me anyway, are what are at the heart of this debate.

In all the debates over ‘postmodernism’ etc it is still clear that certain people do have entrenched positions and construct the Other as something they are not (there may be seeds of this in Leif’s critique). Deane points to the hostile use of historical criticism in certain academic discourses. We can of course reverse this and we all know it isn’t too difficult to find examples where ‘postmodernist’ (or the like) is equated with anti-history or pure subjectivity and so on. I am still yet to be convinced that there are substantial differences in approaching history and texts in terms of providing evidence for an argument and historical reconstruction. All I can see is different scholarly emphases on what is *worthy* of reconstruction.

A final aside...Chris Weimer’s strong criticism that some or much scholarship labelled by some (or perhaps many) as postmodernist, poststructuralist or ‘(critical) theory’ is pure nonsense (such scholarship, not Chris) is something with which I have some sympathy. The world of ‘theory’ (or something like – again I think we all roughly know what is meant) can include incomprehensible or nonsensical ideas and Chris is dead right to point to Sokal. As is now well known, Sokal deliberately invented things in a hoax article and, amazingly, the article got published. That alone says something. Chomsky said he knew Lacan and said Lacan told him that we would invent nonsensical ideas just to see if Parisian intellectuals would believe them. Is it being too harsh to suggest that both cases imply that some people think some profound truth beyond most and is available to the critically trained few. I do not believe that certain people in the humanities have reached a more profound level of truth many of us are not clever enough to understand. Like too much academic language, I strongly suspect that we have a classic case of academic power play, a vanguard of the elect academics who are privileged enough to *know*... That too is for another time but I would just add that exotic use of language is also used outside the world of what some might call ‘theory’ (or whatever we want to call it) and can be found in works of a more historical critical bent... Now, I don’t know how wide ranging some of the incomprehensible language or absurd statements cited by Sokal, Chomsky and others is but it is obviously present in the intellectual world, and in the work of some high profile academics, and so it will be interesting to see what Chris uncovers (it seems he intends to write more on this).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Support Lloyd Pietersen and the future of the discipline

I will simply cut and paste Mark Goodacre's post which I fully endorse:

Lloyd Pietersen and the University of Gloucestershire: Action needed

...now another British university department is similarly under threat from the university's own administration, and one of our good friends has heard today that his post has been terminated.

Lloyd Pietersen is Senior Lecturer and Research Coordinator in New Testament Studies in the Department of Humanities at the University of Gloucestershire. For those who do don't know him, Lloyd is a first class scholar, a fine teacher, and a delightful person, a massive asset to the university. It is unthinkable that they would let someone like Lloyd go.

So what can we do? To begin with, we can pull out all the stops and inundate both Paul Bowler (pbowler@glos.ac.uk) and Patricia Broadfoot (vc@glos.ac.uk) with notice of the damage to research and the university's reputation.
I should add that the Facebook group has a lot of helpful detail for when you compose your letters.