#ranthill: i cudda been somebody

biblical studies (nb. not Bible Studies), the discipline in which i partly and somewhat discomfortably located myself over the course of my PhD (examining the potential for reading Leviticus in the light of contemporary ecological ethics), appears to be experiencing an interesting moment.

despite the fact that my work has left me stranded on its shores, as someone primarily trained in theology and interested in ethics and hermeneutics, who was then somehow convinced to spend four years studying Leviticus, i consider myself a relative outsider to the discipline – a location that i have found both helpful and disconcerting.

i have felt this otherness most keenly at the (traditional) conferences that i have summonsed the courage to attend, and the nub of the issue seems to be that i find myself perilously astride a gulf within the discipline that has long since opened up, but seems currently to be rapidly and tempestuously expanding.

before continuing, i should first of all do something by way of defining ‘the discipline’.

Biblical Studies obviously takes in scholarship on both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (as well as a few other sources). while, due to the subject of my thesis, i have interacted mainly with the former, i also have plenty of friends situated in the latter, and my work was in the context of a wider project largely populated by NT peeps.

despite the fact that the HB and NT communities are actually rather different, the issues that lie at the heart of this post (and my experiences more generally) are, i feel, sufficiently common to speak to the broader context.

what is more, i can speak only to the British scene (or, at most, the general scene interpreted in a British context), having only secondhand knowledge of how things work in other places.

with these caveats in place, please allow me to attempt a description of the divide which i perceive, and uncomfortably straddle.

on the one hand is the old guard, headed up by the ‘gatekeepers’ (believe it or not, a genuinely self-appointed term). the cohort to which this nomenclature applies is, unsurprisingly,  not a diverse one. we are talking about often bearded, always white, overwhelmingly middle-class, mostly middle-aged, men. definitely men.

this school has tended to rally round the banner of traditional Historical Criticism, often, although not entirely, interpreted through and within the tradition of classic Protestant, Spinozian rationalism.

many in this camp hold a confessional faith position in tandem with their scholarly enterprise and are often accused by their detractors of masking their inherent ideologies (booooo) behind the vocabulary of critical rationalism and empiricism.

on the other side, there is another (often, but by no means exclusively, younger) element who tend to hold Historical Criticism in less (or at least less all-encompassing) esteem, and utilise a whole raft of other, contemporary critical tools: Rhetorical/Ideological Criticism, Postcolonial Criticism, Literary Criticism, Feminist Criticism, Queer Criticism, and so on.

many of those in this camp do not hold a confessional faith position, and are suspicious of those that do (primarily, it seems to me, because of the historical and continuing ascendancy of those in the former group).

given that the issue of faith position is not a big deal to me (i almost always hang out with the most heathen of non-believers, given the choice), the second group is the one with which i would most readily align myself. however, the faith issue seems to be a much bigger deal for many of them than it is for me.

as a Christian – and worse, a Christian with a theological background – i regularly find myself lumped together with the old-schoolers in the minds of those that i would consider my more natural peers. what i find more frustrating/disturbing than this, however, is some of the argumentation i hear from the anti-establishment camp.

the crux seems to be the thorny issue of ideology.

the new breed is most keenly opposed to the idea of hidden ideology operating under the guise of historical objectivity. i couldn’t agree more. however, many seem to be coming from the perspective that ‘ideology’ is a dirty word per se and that claims to objectivity are falsified by confessional ideologies in particular.

some even seem to want to preserve the notion of pure, rational objectivity – a location they argue is attainable as long as ‘faith’ isn’t present to corrupt.

with this, i cannot abide.

in classical Marxist terms, i understand everything as a manifestation of some ideology or other. i interpret ideology as being, in itself, a value-neutral (sic) term, and, following Gramsci, hold that what we must most urgently guard against is not ideology, but hegemony.

i see no position whatsoever as able to claim objectivity or neutrality, and what is more, am troubled that those making the counter-claims seem unaware of just how ideological the notion of objectivity is in and of itself. furthermore, i genuinely cannot think of another academic discipline in which such an argument could today occur. well, perhaps Classics.

i mentioned at the outset that the discipline seems to be at an interesting moment – an observation which i base largely on the fallout from the international Society for Biblical Literature conference which happened in London in July, and the British New Testament Conference which took place last week in Nottingham.

(i should say that while i was at iSBL, i was not at BNTC and am merely going on the various reports i have read & heard).

for reasons of (relative) brevity i’ll not go into all the details, but both these conferences ended up playing host to several academic spats which i feel are indicative of various and growing tensions within the field – emanating from pressures both without and within.

such tensions were expressed when NT Wright – an upstanding bastion of historical objectivity – launched his new translation of the New Testament (the Wright NT) at iSBL, and when Saul Olyan, Mark Smith, Bob Becking, Nathan MacDonald and Philip Davies locked horns (at times somewhat unpleasantly) over the legitimacy of the term Monotheism in an Ancient Israelite context (but really the role of religion and its categories in HB studies).

one particularly instructive example, however, has emerged c/o BNTS president Prof. Larry W. Hurtado, one of Biblical Studies’ self-defined ‘gatekeepers’. in a post-BNTC blog entry, entitled The Tools of The Trade, Prof. Hurtado points worriedly to reports that he’s heard from colleagues about their recent experiences examining PhDs.

apparently, it seems students are being examined for PhDs in NT studies who do not have a profound grasp of NT Greek, or French, or German, or who do not know how to properly use the apparatus of the Nestle-Aland text to spot variants.

Prof. Hurtado offers the rather incendiary explanation that these lapses are no doubt due to funding pressures, and are essentially demonstrative of the capitulation of the discipline in the face of academic politics.

of course, while the argument that these examples might indicate something problematic within the discipline is valid, what is crucial to note is the way that Prof. Hurtado assumes and insists that such skills are always essential, regardless of the content of the project concerned, and that any and all scholars would certainly agree.

the implicit message seems to represent an attempt to clip the wings of those who are expanding the discipline in various new directions. it would be very interesting to know exactly what the approaches of the theses concerned were, but it seems fair to assume that those who wrote them were not attempting traditional, straight-up historical critical work.

this issue pertains to me too, given that while i can work with both Hebrew and Greek texts (with a lexicon and some time), i would almost certainly have failed ‘The Hurtado Test’ if handed something to translate on the spot in my viva. likewise, i cannot read German particularly well.

the point here is that my thesis did not really require these skills given that i was explicitly writing from a particular location, and using a particular set of hermeneutical apparatus – the work of Brecht and Gadamer was as important to my thesis as was that of Koehler, Baumgartner and Stamm.

what Prof. Hurtado does in his post is affirm the essential tools of Historical Criticism as the essential tools of New Testament studies all told. “it’s all very well to do all this postcolonial, queer or eco-critical bullshit if you want”, he seems to be saying, “but you need to earn your stripes as an historical critic (like me) first.” (a point he has made explicit in a recent rejoinder here).

there are all sorts of questions to be put to this position, and many of them were articulated brilliantly by the online agent provocateur and anonymous, satirical queer critic/blogger ‘BW16’ – here, herehere and here.

The Post-Dr and i have enjoyed reading BW16’s blog, and regardless of who (s)he is, as far as i’m concerned they are an excellent thing for biblical studies.

if nothing else, i love reading scholars like Ben Witherington III (aka BW3, a particular target of BW16’s impish provocations) attempting (in exchanges in the comments section of their blogs) to ‘explain’, apparently without any awareness of irony, why BW16’s own approach of “Objective Queer Anal-ysis” is not truly objective.

in case you were wondering about his stance on this issue, BW3 endorsed and reprinted Hurtado’s assertions in a post on his blog entitiled “The Pretenders and the Contenders“. well, i cudda been a contender. (aside: i had not been a reader of BW3’s blog before BW16 directed me there, but i was immediately amused by the way the banner image seems to suggest that Starbucks belongs among ‘All Things Biblical and Christian’).

in one sense, of course, these arguments about legitimacy are nothing new, and continue to make their perpetrators sound like ageing monarchs, lashing out as a response to an (unacknowledged) awareness that their power-base has been irreparably eroded.

on the other hand, however, they are deeply troubling and the rhetoric seems to be escalating.

currently, the reality appears to be that unless you are made in the image of the gods, you will not be considered ‘legitimate’ and will not move up within the discipline (or at least you will get only as far as they allow).

the gatekeepers, it seems, are afraid of all kinds of things – variant approaches, new critical tools, use of the media, women – but then i guess we should really be grateful to and for them, after all: wide is the gate and broad the way(s) that lead(s) to destruction, but strait (straight) is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and few find that.

still, what do i know, i’m a bum.

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  • Comments (1)
    • Sam
    • September 7th, 2011

    A very interesting post. Yes, the gatekeepers are there – as much in the position where I sit myself, Cultural Theology, as much as Biblical Studies. For the most part, ironically, the old breed use increasingly outdated tools in their own studies – yes, there is a certain importance in using Biblical Greek, if needs must, but it is by no means a pre-requisite: objectivity to the original text is not the be all and end all, especially in the rapidly shifting world…

    In Cultural Theology, there are very few who actually understand ‘Culture’ in its modern sense: they take it in two ways, either in a Clifford Geertz anthropological sense, or in a ‘high’, ‘pop’, ‘folk’ low sense. Neither is that useful anymore, because we now live in the hyper-reality where culture ever shifts, and people can pull upon any number of cultural signifiers to define themselves – cultural studies has basically started to see culture as more of a pick’n’mix than a hegemony, particularly in the Western world. Apart from a few, such as Gordon Lynch at Birkbeck, and Jolyon Mitchell, the lack of inter-disciplinarity in certain sections of the old breed, has, unfortunately lost the nuance of it. It might be, of course, a discomfort with Postmodernism which has driven some traditional theology into obselescence.

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