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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Danny and his Definitions

Being ok at some computer-y things and bad at others, I have to respond to Danny Deinde here because (shamefully) I don't know how to...erm...post a comment.

Here goes:
Okay I am very slowly making my way through James Crossley's new book Why Christianity Happened. As I was a big fan of Rodney Stark's sociological account of Christian origins, I know I will enjoy this book. I actually considered for a time going into sociology instead of biblical studies, so I have a fair grasp of sociological methods.

I am a big fan of Stark's book and a lot of his sociology too (as is clear in the last chapter of the book).

James and I also got along at SBL and I enjoy winning these secular discussions when I argue with him or Berlinerblau or whoever ;-)

Winning? But not pool, eh, Danny!

Before I ask my question and hope for J.C. to answer, just a small critique of his book. One of the main thrusts of the book is that social sciences have not been fully utilized in the discipline and some biblical scholars, at least in the past, were wholly ignorant of s.s. methods. That's why I would have suggested a glossary for this book-- if you want readers of biblical studies to become familiar with s.s. methods via this book, then we need to understand the terms. One thing that always frustrated me about sociology was the 'ismations' and 'ationisms'-- An entirely new word with wide ranging connotations can be created just by adding 'ism' or 'ation' to it. I wasn't sure what all you were implying when you use the word 'Bolshevism' or 'McCarthyism' beyond the general and obvious referents. But maybe I'm just being nitpicky.

As it happens, I actually did mean the Bolshevism etc. in the general and obvious sense. I wasn't using them polemically or technically, just as basic historical terms (i.e. NT scholarship in the times of McCarthyism or McCarthy-style thought, NT scholarship in the conext of Bolshevism and the Cold War etc.). I am understanding you right here Danny?

As for a glossary, I am against this for my own work because, like Danny seems also to think, I really don't like technical terms as they frequently make the debate much more complicated than it really is (there are a few mildly sarcastic comments in chapter 5 which might give this away). I think a lot of the ideas from social sciences are very, very useful while being pretty simple (and I mean that in a very positive sense). Why over-complicate them?

I would also say this is one of those works that uses social sciences when they have been shown to be useful or could be useful. It is not a full blown social scientific approach like (say) something from the Context Group. Talking of the Context Group it is this group of people and others who have been presenting various methods from the social sciences to NT scholarship and they would be best at giving the definitions if required (as they more or less have done).

On to my question. Early on in J.C.'s book (sorry, don't have it in front of me) he talks about the dominance of the Christian perspective in biblical studies. Of course I will not argue with it. But then he goes on to say that the results of even the more liberal strains of scholarship like the Jesus Seminar is still 'Christian'.

What do others think of this? Can the results of the Jesus Seminar still be labeled as Christian or confessional scholarship? (some wouldn't call it scholarship at all!) What is our reference point for defining something 'Christian' anyway? Is it the common creeds, the agreed upon fundamentals-- however they be interpreted?

I would tend to think the findings of the Jesus Seminar are 'Christian' only insofar as they aggressively spread their findings to the church-- and by church I mean John Spong's denomination. They want to add works to the biblical canon, they don't believe Jesus spoke about eschatology, they thought he was a traveling sage who didn't enlist followers, barely said anything at all, did not rise from the dead, and was probably an illegitimate child. Now granted, scholars can argue and defend any position they want and many have done so very well and their scholarship is respected. But I think the Seminar has passed the point of being labeled 'Christian' for their scholarly findings. If their findings are still to be broadly labeled 'Christian', then so would any scholarship that has to do with Jesus, Crossley's included.

In broad terms I would see the Jesus Seminar as a liberal Christianity. Funk and Crossan and others were quite explicit in wanting to reform Christianity etc. and want to make an alternative theology available. Now of course various individuals are atheists or something non-Christian but there was a definite liberal Christian feel to the questions and answers. The sending of memeber to churches is another example.

Now there are some interesting developments. Some people we might have associated with the Jesus Seminar are joining up with the Christian Origins project and the new debate which will appraently question whether Jesus existed or not (and note the distincing from the Jesus Seminar). There is some association with some very sceptical non-religious types. But there remain some of the liberal Christian scholars. It will be interesting to see how this develops and how it will become defined and how members will define themselves. [UPDATE: SEE NOW THE ABOVE POST]. Danny is hitting on an interesting point of definition though because hard and fast defintions will inevitably break down with more and more detail.

I wonder if self-definition/identification counts here or not? If scholars identify themselves as Christian and see their work as having some significance for the church then that may be a useful definition. My approach was a little different: it was the statistical issues and their impact that interested me most.

But back to the present and past. I would describe myself differently from Spong etc. and the liberal elements and I don't think you could lable my work Christian. Here's why: I don't really care about what is and is not in the canon, I've no desire to reform Christianity and all that. These reform things may be honourable tasks but they are not my concern.

Also, there is a problem when you take the view that studying Jesus or the Bible is 'Christian'. As ever a couple of extreme examples can be useful. What do we someone who studies Stalin? Plenty of modern liberal democatic scholars study Stalin but are not Stalinists. If I want to study Hitler, what does that make me? Obviously, many non-fascists study Hitler and you couldn't (obviously) be described as fascists. I'm interested in Jesus and Christian origins for historical reasons (among others) but that alone cannot make my work 'Christian'.

What do you reckon, Danny?


Blogger J. B. Hood said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who has trouble posting/commenting on Deinde.

In your quest to name a search engine, I think the phrase "booble" would work, Danny.

January 12, 2007

Blogger Danny Zacharias said...

Jason, your computer(s) have a ghost in them. For James not being able to post its just stupidity ;-)

And before we discuss seriously everyone needs to know that we played two games of pool- the first one I won and you sunk only 1 of your balls, the second game you won and I only had 1 ball left. Now that the facts are straight, everyone knows which biblioblogger is the pool shark!

As to terms, can McCarthyism and Bolshevism be used to just mean a period of time? I was under the impression that once something is an "ism" it is a bit more technical. I am working a little ad hoc again because I don't have your book in front of me- It's in my bathroom at hom (just joking)

I guess the question of labeling something 'Christian' comes down to whether or not the definition comes from the person's/people's intentions and own identification or the results of the scholarship itself. I tend to come down on the side of the scholarship, while I think you would come down on the other side. Truth is it is probably a bit of both. But to use an extreme example— If I claimed to be a Christian and wanted to offer my scholarship to the church but vehemently argued that Jesus did not even exist, I'm not sure that could be labeled Christian just because of my self-definition. Of course such examples are rare— we are usually dealing with the hazy middle. You definitely do have a point about self-definition/classification though.

You said, "Also, there is a problem when you take the view that studying Jesus or the Bible is 'Christian'. As ever a couple of extreme examples can be useful. What do we someone who studies Stalin? Plenty of modern liberal democatic scholars study Stalin but are not Stalinists."

I concede your point here J.C.

Until we meet at the pool table again, I bid you adieu.

January 12, 2007

Blogger James Crossley said...

People might believe comments like your second sentence Danny!

Pool: for all the argumentation my comment remains true - you did not win at pool according to anyone's rules, even the strange ones you and Paul N invent.

On Bolshevism etc. Well no not just time period then but general period and movement but general. Nothing particularly technical, just the general meanings of the phrases.

Usually I'd be coming down on the side of scholarship too. For what it is worth, the chapter as a whole is really talking about the background of the scholar, rather than the scholarship itself. There are plenty of individual examples where it would not be easy to tell of the religous persuasion but overall pictures have dictated questions asked (and sometimes answer given. The usual qualification: this isn't necessarily a bad thing but different persuasions almost inevitably lead to different questions.

This pool thing has to be resolved. A showdown. Next time there must be a winner...

January 17, 2007


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